In the new Netflix young adult action movie “Finding ‘Ohana” we first meet the lead character, 12-year-old Pilialoha “Pili” Kawena, played by Kea Peahu, on the busy streets of NYC. Pili is a geochaing champion. For anyone over the age of 30, geocaching is a popular game played around the world that involves using mobile technology to find “caches,” or hidden objects, using GPS. Essentially, it’s a 21st-century treasure hunt, and Pili is a grandmaster.
But, after winning a major geocaching tournament, Pili and her late-teen older brother Ionae, played by Alex Aiono, are dealt the blow that they have to uproot from their apartment in Brooklyn — Greenpoint, specifically — to their family’s native O‘ahu, Hawaii, after their grandfather becomes ill. When it eventually transpires that their Papa is behind on his rent payments, the true clincher of urban versus rural becomes very real: will the family sell their NYC apartment and move to Hawaii? Or is Papa in for a major metropolitan culture change?
Predictably, Pili and Kea are far from impressed when they are dropped into rural O‘ahu—“it smells like old people and disappointment,” remarks deadpan Ionae, and of course, the WiFi is patchy at best.
But it doesn’t take long for spunky Pili to find amusement in the form of a journal containing a 200-year-old mystery of buried treasure. Shipwrecks, dangerous underground Indiana-Jones-like obstacles, sibling rivalries, Spanish colonialist treasure, brushes with death, teenage crushes, a gang of no-man-left-behind friends, and a quest motivated by saving a family home? To anyone under the age of 30 — this is the plot of the 80s stone-cold classic “The Goonies,” transported to Hawaii, but minus the Cindi Lauper and age-inappropriate villains.
Pointing this out is not a criticism. Young adult tales are often re-imaginings and scriptwriter Christina Strain admits “The Goonies” influence on her own tale.
What makes it not just a rehash is that the crew of “Finding ‘Ohana” went to great lengths to research and incorporate Hawaiian culture into the film and give representation to Asian American and Pacific Islander heroes. The cast and crew even decamped to Thailand for the cave scenes as caves are seen as “kapu” (forbidden) in Hawaii because they are often burial locations.
amNewYork Metro spoke to Kea Peahu — now 13, who was born and raised in Hawaii until her love of hip hop dance and then acting led her family to relocate to LA — about her experience filming her first movie in the lead role of Pili.
An obvious first question for Kea is how the urban/rural dichotomy has played out in her life. She replied that it helped her connect to her character but that she really finds the question impossible to answer, as she has firm bases in both locations. Funnily enough, perhaps the biggest culture shock for Kea was filming in Brooklyn in November — the West Coast girl’s hands turning purple from the cold.
Ebullient, energetic, and sincere, Kea believes there are three key messages that permeate the movie: to take care of each other like family, like ‘Ohana, to take care of the land and environment, and she also hopes it will inspire people to learn more about their own culture.
Bubbling with excitement over what is sure to be a very bright future for this talented actor and dancer, Kea describes the movie as a “family-friendly emotional rollercoaster with a lot that people can relate to. Most of all I think that it’s really cool to see from the start to the end of the movie how we all connect as ‘ohana.”