Waikiki is the long-awaited feature debut of Native Hawaiian Christopher Kahunahana, continuing its festival circuit run at this year’s Bentonville Film Festival. Kahunahana directed the 2014 short film Lāhainā Noon, an intoxicating 15-minute admixture of the tangible and the spiritual that is now hosted on the Criterion Channel, and has left the world of independent film waiting (im)patiently for his full-length follow-up. Perfectly nestled in Bentonville’s narrative feature competition, Waikiki builds on Kahunahana’s fascinations and shatters any notions of the limits of his potential as a filmmaker.
Waikiki is purposefully beguiling, and spilling certain plot details would erase the thrill (accompanied by a certain degree of disappointment, at times) of sorting things out on your own. But returning to his native Hawaii, Kahunahana offers a kaleidoscopic vision of the famous, titular beach neighborhood in Honolulu. With both searing visuals and a narrative that splits every which way like a gnarly tree branch, the writer-director conjures a dichotomous depiction of a community that’s rarely considered beyond its pristine white sand and crystal clear waters. The juxtaposition is overwhelmingly blunt at times, but it’s never less than effective.
The film is anchored by a stunning breakout performance from Danielle Zalopany as Kea, a woman adrift in both body and mind. Kea is a dancer for tourists; a dancer for tips; a dancer for her boss, for her abusive boyfriend, for everyone who crowds at the periphery of a life lived by the skin of her teeth. Zalopany carries the weight of this land in her body. The tension is a current running through her, zapping her from effusive deference to aggression in lightning speed. It’s a whiplash-inducing performance that could’ve gone all wrong if not for Zalopany’s empathetic fusing of Kea’s many different modes. In her hands, it’s a gift to Waikiki.
The film goes slightly off the rails when it seeks a clean answer for its elliptical first hour - an answer that’s neither earned nor necessary, and which distracts from what fascinated me for the rest of its runtime. It comes back around in a momentarily haunting final scene. Kahunahana is an incredible eye for framing, wielding the landscape of his home to emphasize just how lonely paradise can be. And in just his debut feature, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to fuse beauty and sadness. Waikiki is a worthy first film. In 15 years, it may be even better as a window into the work of an accomplished filmmaker.