Photo: ‘Finding ‘Ohana’/Netflix
Between ‘Enola Holmes’ and ‘We Can Be Heroes’, it would appear that Netflix is looking to carve out a niche for itself by producing family-friendly (or at the very least geared towards the YA crowd) entertainment. While most of these films might not set the world on fire, they still succeed in their goal of entertaining kids and tweens while also being decent or solid works in their own right. Add the streamer’s latest release ‘Finding ‘Ohana’ to the collection.
Based on first impressions or the trailer alone, it’d be easy to describe the film as a modern-day riff on ‘The Goonies’, and that wouldn’t be inaccurate. But director Jude Weng and screenwriter Christina Strain manage to bring their own spin on it, transplanting the story from the bucolic Oregon coast to the tropical landscapes of Hawaii, as well as exploring familial drama and paying tribute to Hawaiian culture. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, ‘Finding ‘Ohana’ is a fun adventure story for the whole family and a step forward in terms of representation.
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A ‘Goonies’-Style Story For a New Generation
Pili (Kea Peahu) is a young street-smart geocaching champion thriving in the streets of New York. However, her summer plans of attending a camp at the Catskills are upended when she, her older brother Ioane (Alex Aiono), and their single mother Leilani (Kelly Hu) are forced to return home to their native Oahu after their grandfather Kimo (Branscombe Richmond) suffers a heart attack. Though born in Hawaii, both Pili and Ioane lived most of their lives in Brooklyn and thus have no real emotional connection to the island. At the same time, Leilani attempts to mend her rocky relationship with her father, having left home years ago after her husband’s (Brad Kalilimoku) death.
While exploring, Pili finds a journal detailing the location of a pirate treasure hidden deep in the mountains. With the prospect of having to permanently stay in order to save Kimo’s land from being foreclosed, Pili and her new friend Casper (Owen Vaccaro) embark on a journey to find the lost fortune, confident it will solve all of her family’s problems. The two are soon joined by Ioane and his new crush Hana (Lindsay Watson). But as the four make their way deeper into the mountains and face all sorts of obstacles, Pili and Ioane start to gain a deeper understanding of their culture.
The Search For Treasure and Family
As mentioned earlier ‘The Goonies’ is a huge part of this movie’s DNA, along with a dash of ‘Indiana Jones’ and a bit of ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’. The homages even extend to having Ke Huy Quan, best known as Data in ‘Goonies’ and Short Round in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, in a supporting role as a family friend. So even as it does tread familiar ground for those who grew up with these kinds of family adventure stories (and ends the way you think it would), the result is still well-executed. And seeing as it’s aimed more towards kids, Weng does a good job of keeping things exciting once the four begin the search, with just the right amount of peril without letting it get dark or too intense.
The characters are stock types but are still endearing. Pili is the brave, headstrong, and determined tomboyish little sister; and Ioane is the aggressive, too-cool-for-school older brother. As for their friends, Casper is loyal, earnest, and knowledgeable on the island’s culture; and Hana is the genial but no-nonsense love interest who’s quick to call Ioane out on his misplaced swagger. The four kids play off one another quite well (Aiono’s character is more abrasive but he does get better), with newcomer Peahu, in particular, being broad yet charming.
The film’s strength lies in exploring the family dynamics. Pili and Ioane fight the way many siblings do, but it’s clear to see they really care about each other. Their dynamic feels real. The early scenes between Pili and the gruff but kind Kimo as they bond and he helps her reconnect with her culture are very sweet. A major subplot of the film centers on Leilani and Kimo’s reconciliation as he’s hospitalized, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t downplay the emotional angle as father and daughter work through their feelings of hurt and reconciliation, and Hu and Richmond do fine work with the dramatic moments. It actually gets quite poignant and it does so without hampering the film’s fun tone.
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Weng and Strain even bring a particularly funny storytelling flourish. The flashbacks showing the pirates’ story are done a la ‘Drunk History’, with Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson, and Ricky Garcia playing the pirates and lip-syncing the kids’ dialogue, including hamming it up and throwing out modern slang. They’re easily some of the funniest scenes in the movie. The directing is actually pretty solid; having worked in TV comedy, Weng has a good handle on the pacing and rhythm of the funnier moments. And she has a good eye for capturing the natural beauty of the Hawaiian landscapes and the mountain caves thanks to vibrant cinematography and production design from Cort Fey and Nigel Phelps, respectively. There are some beautiful shots in the film, including one in a cave filled with bioluminescent algae and some involving blue flames.
‘Finding ‘Ohana’ Explores the Culture of Hawaii
Looking at the list of films set in Hawaii, something quickly becomes apparent: almost all of them center on white characters and protagonists. That’s not to impugn on the quality of these films—on the contrary, some like ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ and ‘The Descendants’, are quite good. But a lot of these films just use Hawaii as a setting or an easy tropical backdrop, when it’s also a place that’s rich in history, tradition, and culture. And for the most part, native and Pacific Island actors tend to be relegated to supporting roles or extras: the controversy over whitewashing in the 2015 movie ‘Aloha’ still lingers.
As part of Netflix’s “Representation Matters” canon, ‘Finding ‘Ohana’ puts in the effort to cast local talent and Asian/Pacific Islanders in the lead roles: Kelly Hu, Kea Peahu, and Lindsay Watson are Hawaii natives, Alex Aiono is part Samoan and Maori, and Branscombe Richmond is of Native Hawaiian descent. Hawaiian culture consultants were also brought on for the film’s production. This diversity carries over behind the scenes as well, with Taiwan-American director Jude Weng and Korean-American screenwriter Christina Strain (both women).
This is baked into the film as well. As Pili and Ioane rediscover their culture, we’re right there with them as it’s touched upon and explored. We see the adults frequently speak in Hawaiian Pidgin. We learn about certain traditions and customs for burials or entering a cave, as well as what it is exactly Hawaiians hold sacred. The legend of the Nightmarchers—the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors—figures into the plot. The film even touches on the fear of forgetting and resenting one’s heritage, along with some jabs at how tourists can spoil the land. On the lighter side of things we see details like community pride, Spam cuisine, jokes about Hawaii as a filming location (with Casper commenting on ‘Lost’), and references to Hawaii’s favorite son Keanu Reeves.
“The pidgin, the spam musubis, it’s real Hawaii that you see,” says Watson in an interview. “Seeing it all come together as a Hawaiian and the first time I watched it, I had Hawaiians with me. I think our jaws dropped because we’ve never seen ourselves represented on screen like that”.
Is it perfect? Not quite. The dialogue gets a bit corny at times. And at two hours it’s pretty lengthy for a film aimed primarily at kids; while the length is justified, seeing as the filmmakers are interested in both the adventure story and the family drama, I do feel like some parts could’ve been tightened without hurting the film’s themes.
But otherwise ‘Finding ‘Ohana’ is the kind of kids’ film I like in that it can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. It tells both a fun and bouncy adventure story and a sweet tale of family, as well as serving as a love letter to Hawaiian culture. It’s well worth a watch for families.
Director: Jude Weng | Writer: Christina Strain | Producer: Ian Bryce | Music: Joseph Trapanese | Cinematography: Cort Fey | Editor: Priscilla Nedd Friendly
Cast: Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson, Owen Vaccaro, Kelly Hu, Branscombe Richmond, Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson, Ricky Garcia, Ke Huy Quan, Brad Kalilimoku
By Mario Yuwono
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