Sitting almost knee to knee, locking eyes as you interview Connie Britton, Freida Pinto, Pierce Brosnan or Karen Gillan can distort one’s sense of reality. Knowing the interview is being watched live by thousands of people on a huge outdoor screen can produce the delusion that you’re co-starring in a movie with some of the most beautiful people on the planet.
There’s always decompression required to return from the glitzy Maui Film Festival at Wailea to my lawnmower in Kula. But for all the happy memories this year — and there were many — a special highlight was the world premiere of the made-on-Maui “Kuleana” in front of an audience of 3,100 Friday night.
When I was assigned to review the film for today’s column, I was happy to oblige, even though I knew there would be some disclaimers to make first. This review can’t be objective; I’ve been involved with the production for more than a year, initially doing behind-the-scenes interviews during filming, being an extra and, more recently, giving writer-director Brian Kohne lots of feedback during post-production.
So it’s going to be a balancing act, describing what happens on-screen and evaluating how well it succeeds, all the while sharing a sense of recognition, pride and ownership with hundreds of local folks who watched the premiere.
The story begins on Maui in 1971 as Vietnam vet named Nohea (soulful Moronai Kanekoa) wakes from his latest hangover, gets out of bed and straps on his artificial leg. Nohea’s got problems. Grandma (Marlene Sai) is dying and he has run up gambling debts to a gangster (Mel Cabang) trying to get money to save the family land. A big biker named Moke (Branscombe Richmond) is waiting to collect.
But his biggest struggle is with kuleana, the Hawaiian sense of responsibility, that Nohea learned from his father, Bill Kanekoa (Kainoa Horcajo), on his death bed. In those earlier times — 1959, the year of Hawaiian statehood — Maui was still a place of lush forests and jungles where young Nohea (Ryan Ursula) played warrior and chief with his best friend, a girl named Kim (Kealani Warner).
Kim’s disappearance, and later the death of her mother, Rose Coyle (Kristina Anapau), are sources of mystery in Kohne’s densely woven script. Augie T shows up as a Hawaiian-style Columbo, trying to unravel the case, which gets more complicated with the return of Kim, now a young woman played by the mesmerizing Sonya Balmores.
The detective is focused on Victor Coyle, Kim’s creepy adoptive father (Stefan Schaefer, who also produced the film). Solving the mystery provides mini-history of the forces that have shaped Maui over the last half-century: Hawaiian language, culture and tradition vs. forces of development and exploitation, for openers. The ’70s hippie invasion, the dawning of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, the role of radio as the island’s collective consciousness all add to the historical flashback.
There’s comic relief and surprises along the way, provided by Vene Chun in an impressive screen debut, and strong supporting performances from Steven Dascoulious, JD Tanuvassa, Tsune Watanabe, Bill Hensley, Virginia Sandell and others.
The Navy’s use of Kahoolawe for bombing practice in that era provides both background and metaphor, especially after Kohne creatively reveals the “Target Island” as a source of Hawaiian spirituality and mana.
This is heady, heartfelt stuff, a vision of Hawaii very different from the Hollywood version. While the plot is sometimes convoluted, and the film’s subtleties, including extensive use of Hawaiian language, might not be as resonant elsewhere as they were to the huge Celestial Cinema audience, “Kuleana’s” message is universal.
It’s a work of powerful emotions, rich imagination, uncommon cultural sensitivity, and performances and production values belying its tiny budget. Dan Hersey’s cinematography, Beth Anne Kelleher’s period costumes and Burt Sakata’s resourceful production design bring a bygone Maui back to life, where the audience can glimpse into its soul.
A filmmakers panel the day following the premiere was a wonderful postscript. Filmmakers Kohne, Schaefer, Kanekoa, Balmores, Anapau, Warner, Kelleher, Sakata and editor Adi All-ed participated in the discussion I had the honor of co-moderating with Hawaii State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson.
The artists offered fascinating, sometimes hilarious insights into the endless creativity and ingenuity, and the unshakable commitment that made the film happen, despite the impossible odds against it. In an era when the catering budget for a typical Hollywood production could finance the entire costs for a project like this, “Kuleana” had to rely instead on heart and the powerful sense of ‘ohana it created among all involved.
As the script says, kuleana isn’t just responsibility — it’s a privilege.
The film lives up to its name.
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at email@example.com.