The Gremlin’s (Movie) Library: Finding ‘Ohana

I don’t frequently do movie reviews on here – for the most part, because I don’t watch a lot of recent movies! I also usually feel like other people can do a better job of movie reviews than I can – book reviews are where I feel most comfortable. However, I have so much to say about this movie that I decided it was time to make an exception.

Before I get into this review, though: I am not Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian, nor am I Polynesian or even broadly Indigenous-identifying! If you’re looking for a review that gets into those aspects, there are others who likely get into that; as I find them (and I am looking around, but I don’t have a good database of film reviewers) I’ll link them here. I’ll talk about which aspects of the movie did hit personally for me; but when it comes to Hawai’i’s culture, I am NOT the correct source.

Finding ‘Ohana is a Netflix film, released in January 2021 with director Jude Wang (credits on The Good Place, Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish) and writer Christina Strain (The Magicians, Shadow and Bone). I do want to observe, in line with things I’ve brought up before, that while both director and writer are women of color (Taiwanese and South Korean, respectively), neither are Kanaka Maoli; I mostly point this out since behind the screen representation is just as important as in front of the screen. However, the fact that it’s directed and written by two East Asian women is great – and honestly, it shows!

The movie opens in Brooklyn, in grand style; main character Pili (Kea Peahu) and her best friend Yoli are geocaching on their bikes, racing the boys to the grand prize. Already, Pili’s set up here as clever, good under pressure, and – crucially – bilingual, but not in Hawaiian. She’s learned Spanish, albeit not at home – my roommate had a good laugh at her Spanish which is technically correct and fluent, but very much classroom/second-language Spanish. But it’s on purpose! As she says later in the movie, “Everybody kept thinking I was Puerto Rican, so I just went ahead and learned Spanish.” If that isn’t a mood, I don’t know what is. I have nothing but love and respect for Filipino culture, but I am not Filipino. Pili and Yoli win the grand prize and get to go to geocaching camp!

…Or not. In a wonderful use of cinematography, we cut to where the rest of the movie will actually be set; O’ahu, Hawai’i, where Pili’s grandfather has just suffered a heart attack. Pili and her older brother Ioane (Alex Aiono) have been dragged along with their single mother (Kelly Hu), much to their annoyance, because they don’t know Hawaiian, and they don’t know anything about Hawai’i. This doesn’t go over great with their grandfather Kimo (Branscombe Richmond), who’s about as Kanaka Maoli as it gets. He’s deeply irritated to find that they don’t even know how to say thank you in Hawaiian, let alone anything about why he refuses to move away from his land, his ancestors, his country. This isn’t off to a great start, but at least Pili can go exploring. She finds a picture of her father in a desk drawer, and it’s one of the few she even has; and Leilani promises to go geocaching with her the next day, but that falls through pretty quickly when she finds out that Kimo hasn’t been paying his property taxes and he’s on the edge of being evicted. Of all the things to have to deal with on top of his heart attack.

The movie finds its feet properly, however, when Pili finds a mysterious journal in her grandfather’s belongings. She was snooping (of course she was!) and she ends up sharing it with the white kid who still manages to know more about Hawai’i than her because he grew up there. (Casper, played by Owen Vaccaro; you’d think he’d be much more annoying, but somehow his character is pulled off with no shortage of charm.) It’s a journal from a group of pirates who hid a treasure somewhere on the island, but no-one knows where.

Then, of course, Kimo catches them. Turns out the journal’s been in the family for ages, and he knows where the treasure hunt starts, but he’s quick to discourage Pili from doing a full hunt. The treasure is the journal, he stresses. And she’s actually pretty much okay with that… mostly. She doesn’t know how to swim (which he has feelings about) but she likes spending time with him, and he likes her, too. He’s not trying to be an asshole, and he’s happy to share island culture with her, if she’s willing to accept it. (Island culture here includes Hawaiian pidgin and spam musubi. Nom. I got so hungry.) But Kimo gets hurt trying to get Pili down from somewhere, and Leilani’s obviously furious – and Pili and Casper decide they’re going to go find the treasure on their own.

If this is starting to sound like the Goonies, you are correct! Finding Ohana is full of Goonies references, down to Data’s actor (Ke Huy Quan) as George Phan, one of the grown-up islanders. Obviously, they go after the treasure, and Ioane, Pili’s immature, chauvinist, honestly-trying-but-not-very-well brother has to go after them, and recruits Casper’s older friend Hana to help him. And of course, they all get trapped underground. There’s a lake of lava, there’s spiders, there’s puzzles, there’s twists –

But despite this all sounding predictable, it is pulled off with sincerity and love, and tied in with serious questions about ownership, graverobbing and respect for the ancestors. Ioane starts off as a chauvinist prick; when he’s called on it, he keeps trying (albeit extremely badly) to be better, even though he clearly doesn’t have much direction. One of my favourite moments with him is when he watches Hana say yes to another boy, and starts sullenly cleaning up her car – only to have her ask how that’s not supposed to be an insult, and he sighs and puts it all back. It’s a dick move. But it’s the kind of dick move from somebody who clearly just Doesn’t Know What He’s Doing. Mixed in with the clear effects of racism from non-Hawaiians (he goes by E, not Ioane, because nobody can pronounce Ioane) and a genuine lack of knowledge about his own culture (Hana talks about how a cave is kapu and makes an offering apologizing to the ancestors; he awkwardly flirts with the cave for permission instead), it makes him a surprisingly compelling character. Pili, by contrast, knows just as little but wants to know more; Ioane had to be the “man of the house” and is clearly carrying the weight of that, but she’s just curious, and is horrified to find out what the consequences of that curiosity can be. There’s Hana, who is dedicated to preserving and respecting her culture, and scared to go anywhere like Juillard where she might forget who she is. And then there’s CASPER.

Casper deserves a little extra, simply because this is a character type rarely done well. To be clear, it’s a symptom of a larger issue that there’s always the One White Character. I don’t think the movie would have suffered for having an all-Hawaiian cast. But Casper is… well, for one, he’s not neurotypical. When we see the contents of his adventuring pack, it includes things like a shark plushie and a yo-yo. What? He’s got obviously limited social skills and mostly makes friends with people older than him, which is a neurodivergent mood. The first extended scene with him has him and Kimo burying a bird together and saying a lovely little eulogy over the grave. And he has thoughts about Lost. On top of all of that, it’s hard to know what the movie intended… but it’s very funny to notice that he’s just entirely platonic friends with Pili, and has lots of comments on Ioane and his “muscles”. Hm. Kid… (All of his interactions with Ioane, actually, are incredibly adorable.) It’s also – on a sadder note – a good way to contrast that Pili missed out. She deserved to know at least what Casper knows, and Casper seems very aware of this. He’s sensitive to the fact that this isn’t his world, and it’s not the indigenous traditions he knows a lot about – it’s the biology and the history, the other parts of Hawai’i. It’d be nice if we didn’t have to keep slapping white characters into things, but nebulously-queer, neurodivergent redheads are a nice change.

FINALLY, SOME SPOILERS:

The way this movie deals with grief is absolutely, phenomenally gorgeous. For 80% of this movie, it’s the Goonies with some unexpected commentary on Kanaka heritage and grave rights; for the next 20% it kicks into surprisingly high gear, bringing mythology to life. The legend of the Nightmarchers isn’t one I knew anything about before this movie, but it’s one I’m absolutely in love with now; the fallen warriors of Hawai’i protect the islands, and only children of those fallen warriors can look upon the faces of the Nightmarchers and live. I can’t speak to authenticity, I can’t speak to tradition, but I can speak to the fact that I cried like a fucking baby.

I can’t recommend Finding ‘Ohana enough, honestly. It’s fun, it’s heartfelt, and – while this is a weirdly low bar – all of the wincing or cringing I did was at stuff the movie wanted me to cringe at. No shitty, below the belt transphobic jokes (at least that I caught), no desire to make everything depressing for no reason, and some TRULY excellent cinematography. If you need some cheese in your life but don’t trust the 80s, this is a good movie to go with.

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