REVIEW: ‘Finding ‘Ohana’ is a Heartfelt Treasure Hunt

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Finding Ohana

I love treasure hunts. I don’t know if it’s because I watched The Goonies with my cousins or the fact The Mummy is probably my favorite movie of the late 90s, but the genre is one that hasn’t been embraced for a while. It’s also a genre long plagued by white protagonists heading to and stealing from indigenous lands. But in Finding ‘Ohana, the treasure hunt is about finding the gold, your culture, and your family.

A Netflix Original, Finding ‘Ohana is directed by Jude Weng and written by Christina Strain. It stars Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson, Owen Vaccaro, with Kelly Hu and Branscombe Richmond, Ke Huy Quan, and Brad Kalilimoku. In the film, Pilialoha “Pili” Kawena (Kea Peahu) is a 12-year old geocaching champion who lives in Brooklyn with her mom, Leilani (Kelly Hu), and brother. Pili is adventurous and outspoken. Her brother Ioane (Alex Aiono) – who goes by E – on the other hand, is focused on girls and looking good and blending in with the crowd. The family is abruptly lifted from their life in New York life and dropped into rural O‘ahu to help care for her grandfather, Kimo (Branscombe Richmond) after he has a heart attack.

Having left the O’ahu when their father died, the family returns for the first time since. Initially skeptical about her new surroundings, Pili finds a cryptic pirate’s journal in her Papa’s studio, hinting at a 200-year-old shipwrecked treasure hidden away in the island’s caves and mountains. With her older brother and new friends in tow, she uses her clue solving skills to lead them on an adventure of a lifetime through the natural wonders of Hawaiʻi.

Finding ‘Ohana hits that Goonies soft spot, but it does it by also weaving in powerful themes of identity. By learning about her family and her Kanaka culture as a native Hawai’ian, Pili finds parts of herself she wasn’t aware was missing. At the same time, Ioane is connected to a culture he tried to push away to blend in with his school and his life in Brooklyn. The film manages to explore nuanced concepts of identity, particularly how it’s hard to be connected to something you’ve been removed from.

Finding 'Ohana

While their Papa speaks Hawai’ian pidgin, the two don’t always know what he’s saying. Then there is what feels like a trope, but is executed in a way that those who feel detached from their will understand: having your culture explained to you from someone not of it, but someone who has lived in the place you haven’t. Now, this could have been executed in a cringey way.

Instead, Casper (Owen Vaccaro) is a character who loves the island he’s growing up in and never crosses the line of belittling Pili’s Kanaka identity. For Pili, she finds her connection and her Papa through her exploration. On the other side of things, Ioane learns how to accept who he is by interacting with Hana. As a character, Hana is also Kanaka and afraid to leave home because Hawai’i isn’t just a piece of land; it’s a part of her. By speaking with her and bonding with her, he learns to accept himself and drops his nickname.

Finding ‘Ohana is a powerful film because it speaks to the kids in the middle. Those of us who live in between cultures feel like we either have to sacrifice parts of ourselves or never learn them. It’s a film about connecting to something larger than yourself, your ancestors, your family, and the culture that has shaped it. And it manages to deliver these saliant messages with a nearly all Hawai’ian cast while also delivering an adventure through a cave system to find a hidden treasure and heartfelt humor along the way.

The landscape is gorgeously captured, and the commentary around tourism, its benefits, and its severe detriments are also on display. The set pieces for the action-adventure elements of the series are grand while still allowing the young actors to brilliantly shine as they move through them. Never once does the story seem swallowed up by the action. Instead, the island becomes its own character, complimenting the story and the actors in every scene.

At two-hours, I was worried that Finding ‘Ohana would be too long. I mean, it’s just a treasure hunt, right? But the film uses every bit of its runtime to full effect. In fact, as the credits rolled, I wanted to see more of the family, more of their life, and more of Pili exploring the island and learning about herself along the way. If Netflix is looking to greenlight a treasure-hunting franchise, I would want it to be this one.

Finding ‘Ohana is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.

Finding 'Ohana
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

At two-hours, I was worried that Finding ‘Ohana would be too long. I mean, it’s just a treasure hunt, right? But the film uses every bit of its runtime to full effect. In fact, as the credits rolled, I wanted to see more of the family, more of their life, and more of Pili exploring the island and learning about herself along the way. If Netflix is looking to greenlight a treasure-hunting franchise, I would want it to be this one.