Review: ‘Waikiki’ (2023), starring Danielle Zalopany, Peter Shinkoda and Jason Quinn

November 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Danielle Zalopany in “Waikiki” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

“Waikiki” (2023)

Directed by Christopher Zalla

Some language in Hawaiian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, the dramatic film “Waikiki” features a predominantly Asian and white cast of characters (with a few Latin people and African Ameiricans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young homeless woman faces obstacles in trying get housing and a more stable life.

Culture Audience: “Waikiki” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching independent films that examine humanity in dire circumstances.

Nahinu Kalahiki and Claire Johnson in “Waikiki” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

“Waikiki” is an effective character study of what it’s like to be homeless on an island (Oahu) that many people consider to be a paradise. The movie blends harsh realities with the protagonist’s desire to escape through dream-like flashbacks. This is the type of movie were there are no definitive answers at the end. Rather, the movie puts an emphasis on how difficult it can be to get out of the rut of homelessness.

Written and directed by Christopher Kahunahana, “Waikiki” is an 83-minute movie that doesn’t have much of a plot, but the story is told in a compelling enough way, most viewers will be curious to find out what will happen next. The movie essentially shows the struggles of a woman in her 20s named Kea (played by Danielle Zalopany), who lives in Honoulu’s Waikiki neighborhood on Hawaii’s Oahu island. The movie is also a commentary on how homeless people aren’t always the stereotype of an unemployed person begging for money on the streets. Many homeless people have jobs.

Such is the case with Kea, who has three jobs: a hula dancer, a schoolteacher (of kids who look like they’re in fourth or fifth grade) and a server at a local bar. All of these jobs aren’t don’t pay enough for her to be able to find a permanent place to stay, so she’s been living out of her van. The beginning of the movie shows Kea applying for to rent a room in what appears to be some type of public housing facility. She’s told she will get a response to her in about application in about a week.

Then there’s an idyllic scene of Kea in her hula dancer job. While performing, Kea smiles as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. This scene is filmed almost like it would be a tourism video to visit Hawaii. But this seemingly picture-perfect scenario then gives way to showing Kea’s reality.

Once she gets off stage, she’s stressed-out and has to go to her night job in the bar. Kea has a flirtatious conversation with a customer named Jimmy (played by Durell Douthit), who looks old enough to be her grandfather. Jimmy gives Kean some cash that he says are for her kids. She reminds him that she doesn’t have any children and that he must have her confused with someone else.

The conversation then turns into a thinly veiled sexual proposition from Jimmy, who wants to pay her for whatever he’s proposing. Kea seems open to the idea (and it’s implied that she’s probably done it before for money), but then she’s interrupted by her boyfriend Branden (played by Jason Quinn), who storms into the bar and angrily pulls her out of the place, which he calls a “slut bar.”

Branden and Kea have an argument outside. And it’s soon reveals that Branden s verbally and physically abusive to Kea. He becomes enraged when he finds out that she’s been living out of her van. He demands that she hand over the keys. Instead, she drives off, nearly hitting Branden with her van in the process.

Kea is distraught as she driving on a deserted road. For a brief moment, she looks at her phone. And it turns out to be a big mistake. Looking at her phone distracts her from looking straight ahead while she’s driving. She hits a homeless man (played by Peter Shinkoda), who is lying unconscious on the street.

Kea calls Branden in a panic and tells him what happened. Branden asks Kea if anyone saw this accident and if anyone else is around. When she says no, he advises Kea to drive away immediately. They have another argument because she doesn’t want to leave this victim but she doesn’t want to report this incident either.

And so, Kea puts the unconscious man in her van. The rest of the movie shows the odd and unlikely acquaintance that Kea has with this man, who says nothing to her at first. Eventually, he tells her that his name is Wo.

One of the interesting things shown in “Waikiki” is how even though Kea is homeless too, she initially has a superior attitude toward Wo, who is a stereotypically dirty and disheveled. When he regains consciousness, one of the first things that Kea does is berate him, by calling him a “stupid-ass bum” and telling him other cruel things, such as saying that his family must be ashamed of him.

People who are familiar with psychology can easily see that Kea isn’t really angry at Wo. She’s angry at herself for being in a predicament where she is homeless too. And deep down, she’s afraid that she will end up just like Wo: looking dirty and desperate, with no safe place to sleep. Kea thinks she’s better than Wo because she’s working and has a van.

During the course of the movie, several things go wrong in Kea’s plans to get her life back on track. When things become too much for Kea, she starts having flashbacks to her childhood. A recurring flashback, which looks like a dreamlike version of reality, shows Kea at about 6 or 7 years old (played by Nahinu Kalahiki), in happier times with her grandmother (played by Claire Johnson), while they are in the middle of an ocean. The grandmother is sitting on a chair and sometimes sings to her.

Other childhood memories aren’t as pleasant for Kea. There’s another flashback that shows Kea, when she as bout 10 or 11 years old (played by Kealohi Kalahiki), was abandoned somewhere outside was told to wait for a call at a nearby pay phone. That call apparently never came. As an adult, pay phones can be “triggering” for Kea. Don’t expect to find out anything else about Kea’s past, such as where her parents are, or how long she and Branden have been a couple.

The movie has some touches of dark comedy. There’s a scene where Branden and Kea have another argument over the phone. Branden becomes so angry, he punches a hole in the wall. He then takes a picture hanging on the wall to cover up the hole, but the picture is covering up another hole in the wall. It can be presumed that this wall damage was also caused by Branden.

“Waikiki” has some very artistic-looking scenes for a movie with a low budget. Zalopany gives a mostly capable performance, although there are some moments where she awkwardly overacts. Perhaps the most disppointing thing about “Waikiki” is that the character of Wo is very underdeveloped, even though he barely talks in the movie.

However, “Waikiki” is really told from Kea’s perspective. She eventually starts to warm up to Wo but doesn’t care enough to ask him about who he is and what he wants out of life. If that seems a little heartless of Kea, the movie shows (but doesn’t tell) that Kea is in survival mode and is mostly thinking about herself and how she’s going to get through each day. She doesn’t have the emotional or financial resources to “save” Wo too.

Still, Wo and Kea come to rely on each other for companionship, for better or worse. “Waikiki” shows in its “slice of life” ways how people can end up in each other’s lives through unexpected circumstances. If you don’t mind seeing a movie with some suspense, some psychological drama, and an ending that’s open to interpretation, then “Waikiki” is worth watching for how it depicts the day-to-day challenges of being homeless.

Level 33 Entertainment released “Waikiki” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 27, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on December 5, 2023.

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