Waikiki shows a different type of Hawaii than people are used to seeing. It goes without saying that the setting is beautiful. Gorgeous is the default for the island state. The film goes beneath the surface beauty and shows a side of Hawaii that is rarely discussed. Director Christopher Kahunahana’s debut is about a hula dancer named Kea (Danielle Zalopany). Kea seems like the seductive mystery girl portrayed in the television shows and movies that focus on the paradise that is Hawaii. In truth, she is in an abusive relationship.
Waikiki works at subverting expectations. The title and main character are the stuff honeymoons are made of. It is not long before the story shows the seedy underbelly of Hawaii. Kahunahana does a great job of keeping his movie grounded. This can be difficult since the setting is known for its impressive beauty. It would be easy to go to extremes to show how ugly it is.
Instead, Kahunahana keeps things focused on the story he is trying to tell. Waikiki uses Kea to show the filth that resides on the beautiful islands. This is similar to how David Lynch would show the seedier side of suburbia. It is not so much about showing how nothing is as it seems. The point is to show not everything is how it seems. This is a much more powerful message.
The story hits many of the familiar beats seen in these types of stories. Still, there is a sadness that permeates Waikiki not normally seen in similar films. This is partially due to Kahunahana’s great direction. The cast also adds to the story. In particular, Zalopany does a realistic job of showing desperation and despair. She brings an odd vibrancy to Kea.
Waikiki is a Lynchian look at the dark side of paradise. Director Christopher Kahunahana showcases this ugliness while never downplaying the natural beauty of Hawaii. It is obvious what the story is trying to do, but it never comes off as heavy handed. It is a grimy slice of life the film is depicting. The ending will be polarizing, but the strong performances will make audiences stick around for it.