The Christmas lights are bright in Honolulu. Blue and red and white and yellow illuminate the hazy nights of writer/director Alika Tengan’s feature debut, Every Day in Kaimuki. This small movie, the kind of friends-and-family near-doc that sees most of the cast share names with their characters, glows with affection for its community and bums around as disinterestedly as its inhabitants. To this movie, Linklater’s slackers might as well be yuppies. While there’s plenty of space to see Tengan’s potential, his drowsy movie isn’t compelling or strange enough to be so detached.
Nobody thinks local late-night radio host Naz (Naz Kawakami, who co-wrote the script) and his ceramicist girlfriend Sloane (Rina White) will really make it to New York. Despite threatening to move with enough frequency and flakiness to inspire a betting pool among his skater friends based around him actually leaving Hawaii, Naz is just another stuck scruffy indie guy with an aloof artsy girlfriend. But her prospects, at least, seem to be leading somewhere big: A university program Naz bullied her into applying for, now beckoning them both. Naz is more concerned about cutting ties and giving away his furniture. Oh, and figuring out how to fly with his cat: Does he need a special carrier, or will a trash bag do?
The visual direction is strong throughout Naz’s neighborhood goodbye tour, with Tengan finding cool framings around the community, tracking long takes in nicely coordinated ways and, of course, shooting late-night skateboarders with all the laid-back, goofy swagger they deserve. And that cat? He gets his cuddly due, which is only fitting since his impending journey across the Pacific is the most compelling part of the loose story.
But there isn’t much to the mundanity. Affected by COVID protocols, deployed effectively as a resonant mirror to the new normal that the central couple considers in NYC, Naz trains the new guy to take over his radio gig and goes to the skate park. He buys records and half-fights with Sloane. He does bad accents with his pals, mumbling through repetitive lines that don’t amount to much. We get the sense that it’s hard abandoning your status as a hometown hero, but it’s all caught in the weirdly dishonest middleground between nonfiction and the hyperreality of reenactment.
It doesn’t go full documentary and never fully commits to being a planned slice-of-life, which leaves Every Day in Kaimuki missing the realist, rapidfire, slangy dialogue found in Tengan’s recent short Moloka‘i Bound. It also sees self-aware actors awkwardly trying to replicate themselves on screen, with lines either too bland or too proud of their own overwritten smarm (skateboarding smells like “sweat and arrested development”). When the film finally meanders through a couple of acts, it starts letting its characters talk to each other in real ways, posing the tough question haunting us all: What if dudes just talked to each other about their emotions?
Every Day in Kaimuki isn’t a film empty of meaning. The fear of not fitting in or the feeling of being an imposter in your own home—touched on explicitly but lightly by Kawakami’s white-passing protagonist—run as the movie’s stronger undercurrents. But they’re just more easygoing elements Tengan is too happy to leave unattended. There’s a way to do a lyrical and lackadaisical movie like that, where the filmmaker’s visual style and skill with establishing a locale’s mood flourish, but both too close and too hands-off a focus on the everyday in Kaimuki sap Every Day in Kaimuki of its mellow observational strengths.
Director: Alika Tengan
Writers: Alika Tengan, Naz Kawakami
Stars: Naz Kawakami, Rina White, Holden Mandrial-Santos
Release Date: January 23, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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