The Haumāna depicts not only a beautiful tropical paradise we typically associate with the Hawaiian Islands of our imagination but explores local values as embodied in the hula tradition. In Keo Woolford’s feature debut, you won’t find coconut bras, grassy skirts and native girls prancing about offering up lei flowers to tourists. Instead, teenage boys begin a journey of self-discovery through their mastery of the dance. In the vein of recent sport melodramas from Friday Night Lights to Invictus, these young men play the game, or in this case, dance in competition as a rite of passage and cultural recuperation.
Goading them on, is an unconventional mentor in the form of washed-up lounge lizard crooner Jonny Kealoha (Tui Asau). A former student of the school, he reluctantly promises at the bedside of his dying kuma (master teacher), Auntie Margaret (Marlene Sai) that he would continue her legacy. He lives to regret this. He faces antagonism all around from his rebellious male students, to the high school football coach, to his would-be rival, dedicated kuma to the local girls, Napua (Mary Pa’alani). The confrontation between Western masculine ideals, through the supposed normalcy of football, and local, cultural norms, embedded in the hula serves to broaden the definition of what it means to be “American.”
Populated with lush photography and picturesque locales, the film explores Jonny’s perseverance with the boys. He extracts them from the classroom and practices on the sun-drenched beaches of Waikiki and Oahu. At first, he seems to be phoning it in. A functioning alcoholic, he soon finds himself challenging his own previous assumptions about his self-worth and cultural identity. Woolford brings a genuine bird’s eye view of the local culture in contemporary flux in contrast to the traditional struggle for native sovereignty. As the prodigal “native” son who had to adapt to and answer to haole (foreign) standards of familiar local norms, the stakes may be even higher for his redemption.