Stoke (2018): It’s a Triple Threat - Well Written, Well Directed, Well Acted.

November 11, 2018


I’m glad to see there are independent local artists who have a vision and know how to execute it with skill. The Hawai’i International Film Festival opens up with a great feature film by a duo from the Big Island.

Phillips Payson and Zoe Eisenberg (the creative team behind “Throuple” and “Aloha From Lavaland”) return once again to bring us another addition to their whimsical filmography. Their first film “Throuple” was surprisingly good. My colleague Farah Kati praised the film while I thought it was good and nothing more. And “Aloha From Lavaland” is an engaging documentary film, but it’s not one I would revisit anytime soon. However, I will admit Mr. Payson and Ms. Eisenberg have a very distinct style that I haven’t noticed from other Hawai’i independent filmmakers. Which is refreshing to say the least. Their new film “Stoke” is a further testament to their whimsical filmmaking. In my opinion, “Stoke” is their best film yet that they have publicly released.

“Stoke” revolves around a young woman who heads to Hawai’i (more specifically the Big Island) to deal with her grief. As she realizes how utterly lost she is in this new environment, she confronts two lov
able friends who help her reach her desired destination... but not without running into their fair share of obstacles.

While the synopsis may sound somewhat familiar, the Big Island filmmaking duo (as my colleague Farah Kati calls them) made this familiar story quite the enjoyable watch.

One of the main reasons why Ms. Eisenberg and Mr. Payson stand out to me is due to the stories they tell. They have the absolute courage to tell weird stories that have a high possibility of being complete flops. But yet they make it work. Once again, much of this credit goes to Zoe Eisenberg’s script writing talents.

While I was watching the film, I had no idea where this story was going to go. I was so captivated by the characters that I felt I was part of the journey. But as I let the film marinate with me, I’ve come to realize the story itself is somewhat cliched and typical. But that doesn’t matter. Why? Execution is always the deciding factor in what makes a film/story refreshing or mediocre. And “Stoke’s” execution is wonderfully handled by both writer and directors.

The characters are so likable and real that you just want to be present with them. While there are some characters that feel too similar to each other (specifically characters Jane and Dusty), there are other characters that standout as entertaining and distinct individuals. Zoe Eisenberg wrote a script that is crafted with some of the most natural dialogue I have ever heard in a local film. I would dare say her script has more natural dialogue than independent films I’ve worked on while I was living in California. She adds in these subtle lines of dialogue that make all the characters hilarious yet absolutely real in the context of the films whimsical world.

Of course there are things that happen in the script/film that seem “out there” to say the least, but it never feels fake, forced or inconsistent with the world the filmmakers created. However, there are times when the dialogue can feel somewhat pretentious. A good example is during a verbal exchange between characters Zen and Jane. When Zen (played by Suzenne Seradwyn) is studying Jane’s (played by Caitlin Holcombe) skin and she offers her words of wisdom/advice, the dialogue spoken felt like the script was trying too hard to be deep. But other times, the dialogue is real, hilarious, and grounded. It works wonderfully.

I’m going to talk about “Throuple” briefly because I think it will help illustrate my next point. The main reasons why I thought “Throuple” worked as well as it did is because the director (Phillips Payson) knew exactly what to do to bring the unique story to life without it being too serious and not too self-aware. It has a wonderful balance thus creating real tension. The performances were good, it was visually purposeful and it didn’t treat its audience as if they needed constant explanation. All of this is due to the director’s skill.

There is a saying that if there is anything bad about a film, the director is to blame. But if there is something good about the film, then the director is also to blame. In the case of “Throuple,” the film succeeded because director Phillips Payson knew what he was doing.

This time around with “Stoke,” Phillips Payson and Zoe Eisenberg both take the mantle as co-directors. They have proven to be a formidable force in the Hawai’i filmmaking community and their chemistry is beautiful. Mr. Payson and Ms. Eisenberg are keen on visually telling a story rather than pandering to the audience. The camera captures the small details that subtlety progress the story, the films bizarre events flow together deftly, and the actors’ performances feel molded and controlled rather than wild and untamed. It seems that Mr. Payson and Ms. Eisenberg took their time to make sure this film came out to their absolute liking. Their efforts are not wasted.

When you have a unique, well written script and two capable directors, you receive fantastic performances. Our three lead actors do splendid work.
Caitlin Holcombe is subtle and vulnerable as she brings Jane to life. This is Ms. Holcombe’s second time working with Phillips Payson and Zoe Eisenberg and it’s easy to see why the two directors hired her back. Caitlin Holcombe gives a very controlled and balanced performance as she takes Jane on a journey full of subtle emotions. It’s difficult to find an actor who can be subtle yet impactful when performing, but Ms. Holcombe succeeds with flying colors.
Kauhane Lopes’ portrayal of Dusty is a thoughtful one. While most actors would play this type of character as the typical playboy, Mr. Lopes instead guides his character through a much more genuine journey. He disregards the stereotypes and makes the character his own. The character Dusty doesn’t say much, but Mr. Lopes’ romantic eyes speak volumes for the character.
Randall Galius Jr. is outstanding as Pohaku. He brings more than enough charisma for the entire acting ensemble that I would state he is the heart of the film. While Mr. Galius portrays the comedic side of Pohaku excellently, he also succeeds in exploring the layers of his character and he works the dramatic scenes effortlessly. Mr. Galius finds that perfect balance between comedy and drama in his performance. His physical commitment is also incredible as he seems to have put on weight for the role, which adds so much to the character. Mr. Galius gives the film layers.
The rest of the supporting cast includes Danielle Zalopany, Jordan Turchin, Suzenne Seradwyn, and Kimee Balmilero. While these actors have minor roles, they have such an impact on the overall story with their absolutely natural performances. Every single actor in this film is real and believable. You feel as if you have met these characters at some point in your life, assuming you live or have lived in Hawai’i.

This is where some of the negatives come into play, but there are also some positives. The editing in this film is interesting to say the least. As the film progressed, I started to notice there was an over abundance of montage scenes. While the montages felt fun to watch during certain parts in the film, there are other times where the montages overstay its welcome and it almost came across as the film didn’t know what else to show the audience. If the film didn’t rely on montages so much, this would have felt like a more eventful film. However, to be fair, there are some montage scenes that absolutely work and succeed in getting some genuine laughs.
The film also consists of an over abundance of blackouts. After the film, there was a talk back with the directors Phillips Payson and Zoe Eisenberg. Mr. Payson explained that the blackouts were used to visually show Jane’s mental state. Jane is an alcoholic and the blackouts represent her going in and out of the present world.

A noble artistic choice, however, the choice was not clear. The blackouts felt choppy and it made the film feel longer than what it actually was. There was also no build up or establishment to the connection between Jane’s mental state and the edit decision, causing the blackouts to feel like any other boring/lazy transition. This is where the negatives end.
The use of music is genius however. It comes across as perfectly hilarious when it aims to be. The way the music cuts abruptly during a scene to then show a certain reaction is incredibly smart. There are no complaints with the usage of music in this film.

“Stoke” is a triple threat: well written, well directed, and well acted. Is “Stoke” perfect? Of course not. There are some issues with the film, but no film is ever perfect. Is it worth checking out at HIFF? Absolutely. It’s a fun (albeit familiar) adventure. I hope these filmmakers release “The Bone of the Whale” as well as more films in the future.

-Tanner Ahlo



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