Netflix’s Finding ‘Ohana is safe for parents and their children to watch together while being seen through a historically different point of view that has been missing in the live-action family film genre and is usually reserved for animation.
I recognize sometimes film criticism may get caught up in an overall level of keeping standards high to keep the medium as an art form. Though, we must recognize not all movies are made for everyone and certainly not the critic. Netflix’s latest family adventure film, Finding ‘Ohana, has a clear audience. It’s made for families, but more slanted towards children with a sweet message about family. It also has the distinct advantage of being viewed through the lens, albeit a little sophomorically, of Hawaiian culture. Even more so where the studio doesn’t whitewash the film and build the story around a white protagonist.
The film takes place on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Leilani (Kelly Hu), a widowed nurse in Brooklyn, travels back home with her two children, her teenaged son Loane (Alex Aiono) and her adolescent daughter, Pili (Kea Peahu). She needs to check in on her father, Kino (Disturbing the Peace‘s Branscombe Richmond), who has had some health issues. When they reach the island, they find that Kimo is in danger of losing the property that has been in their family for generations. Then Pili finds a journal that sets her, Loane, their new friends Casper (Daddy’s Home‘s Owen Vaccaro), and Hana (Lindsay Watson) to find the treasure and save their family’s land so they don’t have to relocate from Brooklyn.
Finding ‘Ohana has its influences and pays homage to such family films as The Goonies and Indiana Jones, but is nowhere near those in quality and storytelling. Though, the casting of The Goonies and Temple of Doom (and heck, I’ll just say it, Encino Man) actor Jonathan Luke Ke Huy Quan was a stroke of whimsy. It has a sweet message about family though, being connected to your own culture, and processing grief, which is felt throughout the picture.
Even some of the tropes of the teenage love interests feel fresher than most since Watson’s Hana is adamantly loyal to her culture and defending the people in her community; Casper may not look like a native, but the pale redhead has lived there all his life and should be treated like the islander he is. It’s messages like that which young ones can learn from by flipping the script on cultural norms.
That’s not to say Finding ‘Ohana is something transcendent or an artistic statement, but it’s nice to have a studio take the time to put that much thoughtfulness into its own narrative knowing it has a responsibility to its target demographic without resorting to low brow humor which has become a lazy trademark of the genre.
I’ll say this about director Jude Weng — this is a total 180-degree turn from Buddy Games, a film that she wrote and produced this year. Finding ‘Ohana must be a penance to that egregiously offensive and unfunny misfire. The final product is a good thirty minutes too long and doesn’t have the depth of great family fare, but it’s safe for parents and their children to watch together while taking a historically different point of view in the live-action family film genre.
That’s saying a lot nowadays.