’Ohana is the Hawaiian concept of family or home and in Finding ’Ohana a couple of ethnically Hawaiian New York brats discover its true meaning back “home” in Oahu.
They’re looking for something else: lost pirate treasure which, according to an old journal belonging to their grandpa Kimo (Branscombe Richmond), can be found by following a number of clues, in much the same way as you might follow clues if you were geocaching. Handily, one of the two siblings is all about the geocaching.
But let’s meet the family, as they say in game shows – Grandpa is living under a mountain of debt which his widowed dughter and frazzled single mom Leilani (Kelly Hu) has arrived back on Oahu to try and wipe out… by selling up in Brooklyn, if necessary. Then there’s her button-bright daughter Pili (Kea Peahu) and handsome but jockishly useless son Ioane (Alex Aiono), neither of whom want to be there, both of whom see themselves as New York kids with the sort of street smarts that set them apart from slowpoke Hawaiian locals.
These include juvenile hottie Hana (Lindsay Watson) and her friend Casper (Owen Vaccaro), doubly benighted on account of his specs and his ginger hair. “Ginge,” as Ioane calls him, instantly regretting it when it turns out Hana is very much Team Casper.
We can park the parent and grandparent generation almost immediately. Once the family has arrived and been introduced to Grandpa, he’s conveniently hospitalised, and what with his daughter keeping a bedside vigil and phone reception being patchy, she’s pretty much out of the story too.
Which leaves Pili, Ioane, Hana and Casper as a foursome off the leash and available for any passing adventure. I refer you back to the old journal in grandpa’s possession.
Hawaiian lore gives the film a flavour and we learn of nightwalkers (spirits of fallen warriors), the concept of kapu (sacred places) and of ’ohana itself. But if you peel back the sunshine and the beautiful locations and get down to the level of DNA Finding ’Ohana is Treasure Island meets Indiana Jones with a sprinkling of that special sort of acting you get in Disney Channel productions (this is made for Netflix, but even so), as if everyone involved were trying to impress a half-blind, half-deaf talent scout.
Smarter eyes than mine – thank you Trivia section of the imdb – will have spotted that Ke Huy Quan, the cute kid from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (long since all grown up), has been brought in as a lucky charm in a minor role. He was also in The Goonies, which was a misfit-kids-pirate-treasure kind of thing too.
Having worked out clearly what exactly it is that they’re making, director Jude Weng and writer Christina Strain just get on and do it, bouncing over any small obstacles in pursuit of the bigger picture. Fall down a chute in an underground cave system? No worries, the diamond sharp laval rock will not cut your bare legs to ribbons. And Finding ’Ohana is also very sure that its focus is Pili, and what an asset the smart and extremely likeable Peahu is here.
Smart decisions have been taken too, like the flashback sequences speculating on key moments in the pirates’ story as they hid the treasure all those years ago, all voiced by the kids in 21st-century “peace out”, “that is so dope” speak while the pirates themselves wave their hands and lean left and right suburban gangsta style. Funny.
The Hawaiian locations are spectacular and gorgeous, to the point where you wonder why the islands aren’t used more – Lost and Jurassic Park might have been shot there but the islands were standing in for other places, as they mostly do. Key sequences in the caves, as things get particularly Indiana Jones – ancient machinery, boulders, dangerous creatures – were shot in Thailand, Hawaii’s caves being mostly “kapu” and so out of bounds.
We learn a bit. Thanks to Casper I now know that the phosphorescent cretures lighting up one set of caves are called dinoflagellates, and thanks to Grandpa’s invoking of ancestors and the importance of place we’re given a fast, fun and entertaining introduction to ethnic essentialism, which is what the kids, it turns out, are really “finding”.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021