SLUG Contributing Writer Patrick Gibbs talks to Every Day in Kaimukī director Alika Tengan about the inspiration for his film and more.

Every Day in Kaimukī Rides A Wave of Authenticity


Setting a film in Hawaii can often bring about some preconceptions about what you’re going to see. Every Day in Kaimukī, the feature debut of director Alika Tengan, defies all of them. “Not everybody goes to the beach and goes hiking and wears slippers and surfs all the time,” Tengan says. Every Day in Kaimukī was inspired by the life of Tengan’s friend, Naz Kawakami, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tengan. “We’d been friends for several years now, and we’d always discussed maybe doing a project together,” he says. “So when he told me that he was moving to New York, we discussed maybe doing a documentary about that experience and what that could look like. The more that we talked about it, we liked the idea of fictionalizing parts of it, as well, to make it a little more compelling.”

Every Day in Kaimukī follows Naz, a young man determined to find some sense of meaning in his life. Naz decides that to do so, he must leave Kaimukī, the small Hawaiian town where has lived his whole life, even if it means leaving everything he’s ever known and loved behind. “A lot of the film is exaggerated or sort of a caricature of who he actually is,” Tengan says, “but we really wanted to ground it in his reality, especially because he lives a very sort of urban life—he doesn’t go to the beach, he doesn’t hike and stuff like that. So we wanted to stay true to what that experience was for him.” 

“The more that we talked about it, we liked the idea of fictionalizing parts of it, as well, to make it a little more compelling.”

Naz is portrayed as a cynical and charismatic 20-something who spends his days skateboarding with friends and his nights hosting a radio show which spotlights local musicians. When his girlfriend, Sloane, gets an opportunity to relocate to New York, Naz starts to plan every aspect of the move, including the surprisingly complex details of transporting his beloved cat. While Naz has long dreamed of what life outside of his small island home might look like, he worries about whether he is making the right decision. 

Tengan says that around 50% of the dialogue was improvised, with a number of scenes coming down to Naz and Sloane simply riffing on one subject or another. Luckily, Naz’s acerbic wit and dry delivery allow some of those sequences to play out as highlights of the film. Tengen and Kawakami also wanted to accurately portray the realities of COVID-19, and for the most part, whenever the characters are out in public they are wearing masks. Tengan is adamant that Every Day in Kaimukī is not a “pandemic movie” in terms of genre, and that the filmmaking team was concerned about letting that aspect feel like a gimmick. “It’s not about the pandemic,” Tengan says. “It’s just about people trying to live their lives with this in the background and try to make the best of their situations.”

“We wanted to stay true to what that experience was for him.” 

Far more central to the story is the music, which plays a significant role in Kawakami’s character being a DJ and in underscoring this time in a young person’s life. “True to who Naz was, he was friends with a lot of the bands that we ended up featuring in the film,” Tengen says. “There’s this band, Goon Lei Goon, who we used five or six songs from, and two of the band members actually act in the movie, as well. “ Tengen had spent a lot of time listening to artists such as Nilüfer Yanya and Tei Shi, felt that their voices and music lent themselves to the story they were telling and decided to incorporate their music into the film as well. 

In the end, perhaps what makes Every Day in Kaimukī most special is its lack of pretense in trying to be anything but a simple, memorable story of an important time in the life of a magnetic and relatable character. The movie may be about Naz going away, but if Every Day in Kaimukī is any indicator, we can expect to see more of him in the future, and certainly a lot more from Alika Tengen. Just as “Aloha” can be a greeting a farewell, Every Day in Kaimukī marks both an ending and an exciting new beginning for these talented young artists.