Photograph via Flickr by (OvO).

At midnight, when the water was black and pink with reflected fireworks, a man planted one knee in the sand. From five feet away on the overcrowded Waikiki beach, we watched him open the small square box—the woman covered her mouth with her hands. I’m sure it was a fantasy he planned for months. He would propose at midnight on New Year’s, on the beach, in paradise. Surrounded by tourists. There they were, an island on an island. This was not any Hawaii I knew. But then again, if there was ever a place that leads many lives, it is Hawaii.

Hawaii is an amalgam of realities that is too often depicted as one-dimensional. There is the Hawaii that “mainlanders” and wet-suited surfers fantasize about; the one from Blue Crush (2002), where the beach is a jungle gym and Hawaii’s inhabitants are primed to make best use of its architecture. Sun glazed, muscled, freckled; somehow divorced from worries beyond the elemental. There is the Hawaii of “Five-0” (the original, which ran from 1968-1980) where the place might as well have been L.A. except for a few scenic shots, the token “Mahalo” in a sentence, and a tendency towards Tahitian decor. Or the new Hawaii Five-O, (2010) which follows the formula for fast-paced action: use the landscape for a plot twist. Disney’s Lilo and Stitch (2002) dabbled in Hawaiian relevance with the repetition of “Ohana is family.” But did anyone believe that Beauty and the Beast was an American Girl story? There was, of course, the Hawaii in Pearl Harbor (2001), which is a distinctly American place. Joan Didion wrote about this Hawaii: “[I]f there is a single aura which pervades Honolulu, one mood which lends the lights a feverish luster and the pink catamarans a heartbreaking absurdity and which engages the imagination as mere paradise never could, that mood is, inescapably, one of war.”

Not to pigeonhole the movie industry as a myopic one, but the urge to use Hawaii as an “exotic” flavor is, I’m sure, too tempting to do the setting any kind of holistic justice. It would require the place be shown with surfers and traffic; chirping geckos and McDonald’s ramen (saimin); cockroaches and ginger blossoms; boar hunting and rusted out VW’s. The inordinately rich, the desperately poor; the covertly racist and the reluctantly dependent on tourism. Loving and fiercely territorial. In other words, a complicated place made more so by its inordinate beauty, isolation, and a need to sell itself as one without the others.

Then there is the Hawaii of The Descendants (2011). Just as it received five Oscar nominations and a new round of reviews last month, I was seeing it for the first time. The film opens with a forbiddingly beautiful scene of a woman silently laughing as she is towed behind a motorboat against a backdrop of Honolulu skyline—maybe one of her last moments alive.

We knew that this was the kind of Hawaii many people wanted. With its staid jungle elegantly backdropping the hotels and the well-groomed palms along the clean beaches.

The story of The Descendants follows gallant but dopey Matt King (George Clooney) through the aftermath of a boating accident that has left his wife in a coma. King is saddled with the sole parenting of two fiery daughters, brilliantly played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller—a job to which King is ill-suited but tenderly attempting. Just when the plot seems too close to a too sad reality, it is revealed that King’s wife has been unfaithful. King, his daughters, and one of his daughter’s friends (annoying but sometimes much needed comic-relief; Nick Krause) go on the road to find answers. It’s a familiar device for director Alexander Payne—Sideways (2004); About Schmidt (2002)—but one that moves the story away from Queen’s Hospital where King’s wife is and into the Hawaiian scenery. The party takes us through Oahu and to Hanalei Bay, on Kauai. The King family is old Hawaii and owns a large piece of property on Kauai. The family, led by Matt King as trustee, works on a deal to sell the land and make the current generation of financially decrepit cousins a little richer. The film was adored by most critics.

At the opening of the movie George Clooney’s voice lays over scenes of an unglamorous Hawaii: poverty, homelessness, traffic. Hawaii is not paradise, says the voice. At first grab it’s a disingenuous and all too familiar sentiment, woes of the outsiders, the upperclass (“We’re haole as shit,” says Clooney late in the film, referring to the tenuous claim his family has to Hawaiian land). But the message being delivered is simply that life happens in Hawaii, too, and it happens to everyone. Beauty and ugliness and mundanity. Throughout the film this life particular to Hawaii emerged between the plot, showing the islands as the presence they are.

It must have been the quiet moments, when the breeze rustled the jungle foliage; or the way the seafood “Pupus” were set out for a party; or how the flowy pastel muumuus were worn on aggressively tanned skin, that illustrated so well how people live in Hawaii. Live in relation to what they see out their windows. It was the way King stuffed his feet into shoes left out in front of his house, local custom, before running to his neighbors. It was the way men wore faded aloha shirts and khaki shorts like perma-golfers; it was kids wearing slippers (flip-flops). It was a grandmother referred to as “tutu”. It was the shots of suburbia with tight low lawns of bright green.

By the end of the film (happily drained and a little spongy around the eyes) I was left stunned by the portrayal of Hawaii. I realized I had never seen the islands depicted so matter-of-factly.

In 2006, my boyfriend and I spent most of New Year’s Eve day wandering aimlessly in Honolulu. We got a drink in a sports bar. We watched kids learn to surf in the thin blue water with baby waves. We went to the grocery store and bought seaweed salad and ahi poke. We walked, not talking, past the high-end shopfronts. We didn’t really know how to enjoy ourselves, but we knew that we were supposed to. We knew that this was the kind of Hawaii many people wanted. With its staid jungle elegantly backdropping the hotels and the well-groomed palms along the clean beaches. The subtle reminders of where we were: sticky heat, Myna birds, and Mauna Loa macadamias in the groceries. That night when it got close to midnight, we found a hole in the crowds on the beach. The new year hit; the couple got engaged. We took two pictures to remember that we were there, somehow, in that surreal place. Then we made our way back to the barracks-like room at Queen’s Hospital made available to family of long-term patients.

I have a strange tie to the islands that has nothing, really, to do with me. My aunt moved to the Big Island some thirty-odd years ago and raised my two cousins. My uncle was born there. My many aunties, that term of endearment given to close and slightly senior women friends—a custom in the islands—live on the Big Island, Oahu, and Kauai. When my grandma had a stroke she moved from California to the Big Island of Hawaii.

My grandma had a small assisted living apartment in Hilo. All of her life was packed into it—her American pastoral oil paintings, the charcoal drawing of a redhead, her china figurines. The fridge was full of sliced lemon-yellow fleshed avocados that grow to something like softball size. Out front of the apartment my grandma had made a garden. There was one shocking hibiscus bloom that she wanted us to see; it was yellow and pink, and very sad but comforting to think of her tending that little garden in the humid blanket under the paradisiacal sun.

That New Year’s we spent on Waikiki was one of the three times everyone knew my grandma was dying—complications from the stroke. My boyfriend and I stayed for a few days with her in the curtained rooms in Queen’s hospital, where she had been flown when the Big Island hospitals couldn’t help her. We watched a mounted TV with my grandma, used bathrooms with handrails, and drank cafeteria coffee. It was a setting that would seem at odds to most with the sand and palm trees and the piercing blue waters. But it wasn’t.

Hawaii can be easy to miss. Island life is a wonderful equalizer, like any place where there are extremes (extreme weather; masses of people; thriving culture), it can be hard to tell which kind of island life any one person is living when everyone seems to be living it in a similar way. Hawaii deserves more scrutiny; the telling of more mundane stories, like The Descendants, illuminates its complexity.

Genevieve Walker

Genevieve Walker is a writer and an illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York. Previously at and Newsweek International, Genevieve is a graduate of the journalism institute at NYU. She was once an editorial assistant at Guernica. She has written for the The New York Times, The Atlantic, Cities, and Velojoy.

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