In Kahunahana’s world, visitors enjoy the version of life they can afford—lying on a man-made beach, taking selfies with turtles, or ziplining through sacred sites. Native Hawaiians try to secure a golden ticket for the privilege of serving the malihini. At the same time, Zuckerbergian real estate speculation intensifies displacement—making Kanaka Maoli people,2 homeless in their homeland, improvise shelter in cars and tents, in beach parks, on the countryside, and the thicket of trails hidden along the slopes of Diamond Head.
“Hawai’i has always been Hollywood’s backdrop,” Kahunahana says. “That façade has always been present. I’m just pulling it back: Who’s behind the curtain? What’s going on for real? In Hawai’i, you can’t just get by. You have to actually make a shit ton of money to begin to appear to be normal, to have a roof over your head. Everyone is working two, three jobs.”
Waikīkī’s Native Hawaiian protagonist, Kea, played with profound sensitivity by Danielle Zalopany, sleeps in a van, bathes in a beach shower, and holds down three jobs. In the morning, she is an ‘ōlelo3 schoolteacher, an exemplar of the ongoing Hawaiian cultural renaissance. But the rest of her days are spent servicing the American dream and its ceaseless waves of believers, deplaning into the airport every hour of every day.
In 1993, around the hundredth anniversary of the US takeover of the islands, the Native Hawaiian scholar and activist Haunani-Kay Trask had written boldly, presciently, and shockingly of the brutal impact of tourism, which in 2019 brought the equivalent of seven times the entire population in visitors to the islands.
“To most Americans . . . Hawai’i is theirs: to use, to take, and, above all, to fantasize about long after the experience,” Trask wrote. “Mostly a state of mind, Hawai’i is the image of escape from the rawness and violence of daily American life. Hawai’i—the word, the vision, the sound in the mind—is the fragrance and feel of soft kindness. Above all, Hawai’i is ‘she,’ the Western image of the Native ‘female’ in her magical allure.”4
This is the role Kea takes up at night. As a Waikīkī showroom hula dancer, Kea sells the American dream—the “magic of Waikīkī,” as the song goes—back to bourgeois tourists. She ends each night as a Chinatown karaoke bar hostess catering to a clientele of unsavory white men who bought the bar a long time ago. Kea cannot find a place to call home. She is separated from her daughter and trying to escape an abusive boyfriend and a family that has let her down. She is always perched on the precipice of catastrophe.
Fleeing her abusive boyfriend, she hits a homeless man with her van and quickly begins to unravel. The man she hits, Wo, becomes a mostly silent witness to her descent, and yet he may not even be real. Even the land, the water, and the statues feel her bottoming—in one affecting scene, she encounters a monument of Queen Lili’uokalani and considers both their fates.5 As the movie builds to a stunning conclusion, Kea’s external and internal worlds implode into each other.