There aren’t many films directed by indigenous people. Their voices are largely missing from the cinematic world. But still it’s somewhat shocking that Waikiki which is premiering today at the urbanworld Film Festival is the first narrative feature written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker. Writer/director Christopher Kahunahana’s vision of the Honolulu beach neighborhood is a far cry from the usual fun in the sun take. His central character Kea (Danielle Zalopany) is a young woman struggling to keep her sanity as her world falls apart. She’s in an abusive relationship, living in her van, working three jobs, and her past is haunting her. Then she hits a homeless man with her car.

The abusive boyfriend tells her to leave the man in the street. But she can’t just leave him there and takes him into her van, and he’s with her for the rest of the film. Memories of life with her grandmother bubble up, and they seem sweet, but other visions of her youth that are clearly sinister also intrude. The boyfriend mentions early on that she needs to take her meds, so you’re not sure how much of what she’s seeing is real at times. But she holds it together enough to work as a hula dancer for the tourists, and at a karaoke bar in the evenings, and at a native Hawaiian school teaching her language and culture to kids. But when her van disappears with everything she owns in it, she’s on the street with Wo (Peter Shinkoda, “Daredevil”, I, Robot), the homeless guy who’s suddenly her only friend. They navigate the urban streets helping one another as her demons find their way to the surface.

The film is a lyrical statement about the world that tourists visiting the island rarely see – the poverty, the abuse, the erasure of Hawaiian indigenous culture. It intercuts the lush beauty of Kea’s rural home with the gritty reality of her life in the city. Danielle Zalopany turns in a powerful performance, alternately as the exotic hula dancer smiling as tourists applaud and snap their vacation pix, then as the desperate woman denied government housing and living on the street with a homeless companion.

Wo might or might not exist. And with Kea’s visions intruding in her life, you can’t really trust the story. But it’s engaging because while she’s clearly mentally ill, she’s unbowed. And you’re pulling for her. It’s an unusual film, very well done. Put it on your list to see when it comes out.

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