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‘Every Day in Kaimukī’ vibes miserably

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Do you ever watch a movie and see a checklist? Square format. Check. Skateboarding. Check. Insufferably aware, self-loathing, cynical main character. Super Check. I’ll be the first to tell you that it was a struggle for me to watch Every Day in Kaimukī. Maybe not every audience has seen this type of film before and that’s fine. But I will tell you that anyone who’s been in a university film class in the past fifteen years has seen this type of movie. Call it mumblecore, call it slice-of-life, call it a walkie-talkie: call it anything besides explicitly likable, and you’re bound to get the smug response, “Well, that’s the point.” It’s fair to say some of these films are successful and intentional about that point–that existing is just hard and sad and random and oh well–but the ones that fail to give us anything substantive end up frustratingly aimless and severely cringeworthy. Guess which one this film is?

Every Day in Kaimukī is directed by Alika Tengan and tells a semi-autobiographical story of Naz, portrayed by Naz Kawakami (who is also credited as co-writer). Naz is a down-on-his-luck twenty-something who just wants to leave his small town of Kaimukī’ with his girlfriend and cat and move to New York. When his hometown friends ask him why, Naz’s answer changes every time. He says he’s leaving for his girlfriend’s college program, then he says it’s because he’s never felt at home here, then he says he wants to see if he could succeed outside the context of Hawai’i. I’m not too sure what the actual reason is. What is clear is that Naz doesn’t care about who he tramples while he figures it out.

Naz Kawakami (playing a fictionalized version of himself) in Every Day in Kaimukī

I can feel the film trying to frame Naz as a victim of his environment, but it doesn’t work. In an early moment in the film, Naz is given an opportunity to teach a trainee that will eventually replace him at a local radio station. He hazes the man live on-air and then invites him to skate with his friends. Later on in the film, Naz hears the trainee on the radio and lashes out, accusing him of stealing his friends and job. Naz gives a sarcastic apology and is quickly forgiven. In an attempt to fictionalize non-actors, everyone comes off unrealistic. Naz has every opportunity to be decent but has no self-awareness or self-interest to.

Naz Kawakami and Rina White in Every Day in Kaimukī.

Naz’s relationship with his girlfriend is equally uncomfortable to watch. All they do is sleep, argue about who’s cooking dinner, and argue about who’s not taking the trip seriously. It turns out this routine doesn’t make for a particularly strong foundation. After a series of miscommunications, Naz calls her pathetic for “not wanting more for them” and staying on the island to help her teacher. Naz is so broken up by this, he gets drunk and tries to make advances on another ex-girlfriend who also loathes him. Then when his girlfriend returns to make amends, he breaks up with her and moves anyway. Did I mention this is all taking place during the pandemic? 

Yes this is also a pandemic film, but, like, chill about it. People are wearing masks inside and the pandemic is referenced as an obstacle in passing. It doesn’t seem to have affected people too much in this version of Kaimukī’. I’m split about this decision. Pandemic narratives over the past year have rarely gotten it right, so I’m glad there’s not more emphasis on it here. On the other hand, the context of the pandemic in a small town in Hawai’i seems like a missed opportunity.

Another take on this film as a pandemic narrative is the question: “Why now?” What kind of message does it send and what kind of person does it illustrate? In an attempt to follow through on his plans, Naz moves in the middle of the pandemic to New York and the world is still closed down. So there’s no grand statement other than “New York never dies” from his eccentric housemate. But what about Hawai’i? Is the insinuation that things couldn’t be as interesting, innovative, and full of life back home? Throughout the entire film, Naz is reassured that he has it all in Kaimukī’. He has a job, a crib, a girlfriend, and a community, but he is still not happy. He is also forgiven for all the mistakes he made before he leaves. Naz is haunted by a crisis of his own creation. What more does he want?

Naz Kawakami and Rina White in Every Day in Kaimukī

The most significant line in the film is when Naz says that staying in Kaimukī would mean “quitting life… surrendering to an easier path.” What Naz wants is consistent with a type of machismo that confuses ease for weakness. It’s a want that is never said because he doesn’t know what he wants. It can be agency or contrast or a change of scenery or literally anything different. There’s also a strange moment where Naz is jealous of his trainee because he can’t “pass as Hawaiian.” Pass as Hawaiian? The power dynamic of “passing” does not work that way. This topic is never mentioned again.

‘Every Day in Kaimukī’ has an identity crisis. That may be the most accurate description of what the film is trying to accomplish, but it doesn’t succeed at being clear, intentional, or kind about how it gets us there. Naz is simply too uninteresting, uncompassionate, and listless to root for. From a technical standpoint, there’s a lazy shoegazey aesthetic and soundscape, but the narrative it tries to fuzz out is too distracting for any significant comment. The best thing I can say about this film is that Hawai’ian films can be and are going to be anything they want to be, and that includes mediocre.

Score: 2/5

Film pages: IMDb

Every Day in Kaimukī was covered as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2022.

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