If it takes some time to settle into the mood of “Waikiki,” it’s due to just how far Kea (Danielle Zalopany) feels as if she’s sunk on the Hawaiian island, shuttling from one job to another with only the smallest hope of eventually living somewhere besides her van. A necessity to have such mobility when she has to move between gigs teaching young natives at a local school by day and charming tourists at night hula dancing and bar tending at a club, the van might as well be an extension of her mind and body – always moving, but a place she can’t leave as desperately as she wants to, with her applications for affordable housing unaccepted time and again and no time to plan for a better future when she’s hard-pressed to fit in a shower at a local park to wash up.
Writer/director Christopher Kahunahana isn’t the first to suggest that the reality of Hawaii is far different than the fantasy that has been propagated throughout the years to lure vacationers, but he makes a distinctive feature debut in easing audiences into Kea’s headspace, dancing between the two as she’s confronted daily with actively participating in burnishing an image that is ultimately contributing to her own unraveling. The overeager development of new hotels and condos is always within range — heard with the constant cacophony of construction work, if not always seen reframing the island’s skyline — as Kea struggles to find a home of her own, and she carries the burden of what she sees before her now with high-rises she’s never be able to step inside with the memories of a gentler time living out on the water with her relatives carefree.
These days, it isn’t only making a living wage that Kea has to worry about, but also an abusive ex-boyfriend (Jason Quinn), who potentially jeopardizes her job at a karaoke bar in belligerently barging in with the intention of taking her out. In making her escape, Kea narrowly misses hitting him with her car, but winds up careening into a vagrant (Peter Shinkoda), who ends up taking up residence in her van, but more so in her thoughts as “Waikiki” ventures into the surreal. Kahunahana does little to distinguish between what really may be happening and Kea’s increasingly warped perspective, in which the vagrant starts to literally cling to her back, and while it creates some confusion as far as the narrative is concerned – or what there is of it — the writer/director shows a strong handle over sequences that stir the subconscious.
Having a strong foundation in the searing imagery of cinematographer Ryan Miyamoto, in which desperation can be felt in the darkened streets at night or the haze that tends to overwhelm the days, Kahunahana creates a fluid sensory experience of all the disjointed pieces that Kea attempts to make sense of in her daily life. In a struggle that you come to understand has lasted for generations, the way forward may feel overwhelming for Kea, but “Waikiki” pulls you in as she contemplates a future in which she’ll never be able to fully put her past behind her.