Slamdance 2024 Review: Chaperone: Highs and Lows in Hilo

Misha is going nowhere fast. Nearly 30 years old, she’s in a perpetual state of arrested development, plodding along in the same dead-end movie theater job she’s held since high school. When a high school senior mistakes her as a fellow teen and asks her out, she kicks off a romance that might finally force her to come to terms with her lack of direction in life.

Zoë Eisenberg’s solo directorial debut has its world premiere at Slamdance today. While its principal themes of societal alienation, lack of forward momentum, and controversial romance are universal, her film is most notable for featuring an entirely AANHPI cast set in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. 

If you’ve spent any time in Hilo, her establishing shots are instantly familiar and quickly communicate that this is an area of primarily Hawaiian natives, not tourists. It’s a great setting for this story, as Hilo’s fairly small size and insular feel heighten the believability of Misha’s lack of ambition. She truly seems to have very limited options available to her, much like small-town girls all around the country, even as she coasts by thanks to the inherited windfall of her deceased grandmother’s house. 

The cast is excellent across the board, led by Mitzi Akaha in the starring role and Laird Akeo as her boyfriend, Jake. They have an easy and entirely believable chemistry, making for a romance that feels authentic in spite of Misha’s age deceit. It takes some suspension of disbelief to accept the hunky 20-something Akeo playing a teenager, or to accept that any high schooler would continue to misidentify Akaha as a teen, but Eisenberg’s direction and the strong acting make it fairly easy to set aside any reservations. 

Akaha makes us want to root for Misha to get her act together, but Eisenberg isn’t really interested in a redemption arc for her. As the movie progresses, Misha damages everyone she comes into contact with, from her boss, to her brother (Kanoa Goo, The Rookie), to her boyfriend and his friends, and even to her grandma’s cat.

It’s all a bit much in the latter half of the film, watching this sad sack bring sadness to others rather than finally figure out her life. Eisenberg makes a feeble attempt at a path forward for Misha, but the ambiguous ending leaves open the strong possibility that she has learned nothing and will be in exactly the same place in another ten years. While that probable future may ring realistic based on what we’ve learned about Misha, it’s a distressing potential outcome for this fascinating character.

The film is enjoyable for the most part and is worth seeking out for the assured acting performances and Hilo setting. While it’s clearly a small-budget film, it never feels amateurish, marking this as a polished, professional calling card for future efforts by the cast and Eisenberg.

Buy director Zoe Eisenberg’s debut novel

Steve Geise

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