Jude Weng has worked as a director on episodes of The Good Place and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She makes her second leap from TV to feature length works with Finding ‘Ohana. The movie shows off her sense of historical references, but it starts out with something graspable and modern. Her protagonist is Pili (Kea Peahu), a twelve-year-old from Green Point, Brooklyn, who just won a geocaching contest. This contest is her gateway to a bigger one. But instead she and her family (including Kelly Hu as Pili’s mom Leilani) fly to their ancestral home in Hawaii. The change in scenery doesn’t dampen her sense of adventure, since she finds a book that can lead her to treasure that pirates buried long ago.
Pili’s first try to look for treasure with her grandfather Kimo (Branscombe Richmond) sends the latter to the hospital. Now she has the incentive to look for the treasure to pay for Kimo’s bills. The second try involves a local kid, Casper (Owen Vaccaro). The film’s thrust then involves them trying to find this treasure. This involves a lot of caves under either blue light or light coming from lava and torches. Meanwhile other characters realize that children are in the kind of danger treasure hunters can get, and they must find those children. Her teen brother Ioane (Alex Aiono) is the first to clue in. And he asks his new neighbor Hana (Lindsay Watson) to help these children out of trouble.
There are cynical ways to look at this movie. There are two occasional musical interludes that stick out like sore thumbs. These scenes also seem like they are just ways to remind viewers that Aiono and the other, young members of the cast have musical training. These scenes feel like audition pieces for their next gigs. Finding ‘Ohana also has the same flaw that some adventure movies do when it comes to characters giving each other directions. Casper, who is sometimes a few steps ahead of the other children, is telling those children how to go from point a to b like he’s been there before. I don’t want to rag on Vaccaro’s delivery. Besides, the direction and writing could have made those scenes more naturalistic.
Other unauthorized early reactions to the movie also compared it to The Goonies which, fair. There’s also a way to look at the denouement and say that it’s didactic, as Ioane and Hana have a debate about taking the treasure. Presumably, many viewers are on Ioane’s side. He and the geocachers can ask the spirits if they can the treasure that they need for keeping their ancestral home. This movie is also not the first one to deconstruct the adventure genre this way, but that deconstruction works here. It’s hard to incorporate a message of respecting Indigenous Hawaiian tradition in a fun movie. And this one pulls it off, especially when the message sticks with kids who are growing up while learning about their roots.