Pondering 'Poi Dogs'
BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
When Hawai'i filmmaker Joel Moffett started looking for the stars of his teenage romance, "Poi Dogs," he wanted to find the kind of tough kids who had always made him nervous in high school. He was convinced they possessed an inner beauty.
His search took him to campuses with rough reputations. He'd wait for the final bell and then ask students if they wanted to be in a movie. Moffett, who by his own description is "a geeky haole guy," got a lot of weird looks.
Then he found the heart of his movie in two Kahuku High School students — Anela Manu and Toa Smith. Manu and Smith gave "Poi Dogs" a charm that has won over film festival audiences from Berlin to Tribeca.
The 12-minute "Poi Dogs," which is currently finishing a successful run at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, was described as "a touching, fresh look at young love through the eyes of atypical romantic leads" by Carol Bidault, executive director of the Washington, D.C., Independent Film Festival.
"This was not something you could cast lightly," said Moffett, an assistant professor at the University of Hawai'i's Academy for Creative Media. "I wanted a very specific look to the characters ... a more authentic rendering of local kids in Hawai'i."
Moffett, 43, knew exactly what he needed when he started a three-month search in early 2008. He grew up on Maui in the 1970s, a time when sugarcane plantations still gave the island much of its flavor. He based his characters on youths he knew growing up.
"One of the things I love about kids in Hawai'i is that there is this warmth underneath, even with the most bad-assed people," he said. "I love that about this place. I wanted to tap into that toughness and that vulnerability underneath."
In the film, Manu plays a tuba player in the school band. Smith is a football player on the school's dismal team — the Poi Dogs.
After the team loses a big game, Manu tries to console Smith. It takes a tense fight, though, to make them realize they have common ground and, possibly, something more.
The experience was a challenge for the students, who both graduated last spring.
When she met Moffett, Manu wasn't sure she wanted to audition for the film, but went because her two younger sisters did.
"He wanted a big, tough girl who could stand her ground, but who had a soft side as well," said Manu, now 18 and working at Kahuku High.
Scared, she changed her mind at the audition and tried to slip away, only to run into her father, who dragged her back inside.
Manu liked that the characters "break the toughness" — but being teased by family and friends who saw the finished product wasn't easy, she said.
She's adjusted, though.
"A lot of teachers on campus saw it," she said. "They call me 'poi girl.' "
When the cameras started rolling, Smith had no problem playing a football player — he was a 6-foot-3, 315-pound offensive lineman at Kahuku and now plays for Fresno City College.
Moffett saw him as the perfect choice: A "big teddy bear" with an intimidating look.
But Smith was embarrassed by acting and didn't tell his friends until much later.
"They said they were surprised I could do something like this," he said. "I said, 'Yes, I am surprised myself.' I don't look like a person who would do something like that, be in a movie."
Now the 18-year-old Smith looks back on the experience with obvious pride and credits Moffett with helping him grow as a person.
"Everything he did worked out for the best," Smith said. "Now I think I am a more outgoing person. I am not shy around people. There is nothing to be ashamed about."
But there were a few awkward moments, said Smith's father, Allen.
"Toa doesn't swear in my house, and he had to swear on camera for a couple of lines," Allen Smith said. "He was uncomfortable having to do it in front of me."
"Poi Dogs" has yet to show in Hawai'i but Moffett is hoping it will be accepted at this summer's Maui Film Festival or the Hawaii International Film Festival in the fall.
Audiences will be able to relate to the film, he said.
"It's a universal love story between two prideful teenagers," Moffett said. "They are leery to let their guard down. They do, and that happens everywhere — but what makes the film special is that it happens in Hawai'i."