At the start of “Stoke,” the debut film of writer/director team Zoe Eisenberg and Phillips Payson, we meet Jane (played by Caitlin Holcombe), who has sunk into a state of depression. She’s advised to get out of bed and take a trip- a televised news story of lava flows inspires her to visit the Big Island. We’re then introduced to Dusty (played by Kauhane Lopes) and Po (played by Randall Gallius Jr.), two Big Island locals aiming for success with their newly established adventure tours, only their logo sports a typo and features a vague idea of what they offer. By chance, Jane runs into Dusty and Po, whose tourism operation is a work in progress (their van still has leftovers from their former occupation); nevertheless, she hires them to drive her to the site of the lava eruption. Along the way, the three create a meaningful bond, though not without clashing and a few emotional breakdowns along the way.

“Stoke” is a road trip movie and a very good one. The expectations of this kind of comedy/drama are well established, though it’s the local angle that makes this unique, particularly as a Hawaii-made independent film. Whereas most mainland-produced studio films would focus entirely on Jane, showing everything through her eyes and perspective, “Stoke” alternates between the potent comic duo of Duty and Po and Jane’s bitter, heartsick mindset.

It begins with a series of striking visuals, with a sharpness to the cinematography and editing choices that establishes the strength of the filmmaking. At the screenplay level, “Stoke” generates a low key charm that carries it through the episodic portions of the first act. Once the story takes us to the home of Po’s ex, Kaila (a sharp turn by Danielle Zalopany) and outside for a bonfire party, the film becomes far less formulaic and downright surreal.

There’s some nice character work from the actors, especially Lopes and an eye catching cameo from Zenne Seradwyn. The acting ranges in quality, though the central performances get better over the course of the film. There is gradual comic potency to the central duo, particularly in Gallius Jr.’s work, which becomes less madcap and more heartfelt as the story progresses. It’s no surprise what Jane’s big secret is, though it’s to the credit of Holcombe and her co-stars that there’s a natural, genuine pathos and sweetness in how this all plays out.

The final stretch is the film’s strongest, as the trio explores lava-encrusted land and finds their journey taking a desperate turn; there is somber visual poetry in this sequence, as the imagery demystifies the mainlander fascination with lava. There’s also an ambiguous quality to the closing scenes I liked, as Eisenberg and Payson avoid wrapping things up in a pat, tidy way and linger on a final moment that can either be taken as victorious or a state of self imposed limbo.

Although “Stoke” doesn’t currently carry a rating, the nudity and frequent profanity would easily garner it an R-rating. This is a polished, entertaining new canon in the rare category of a modern day Hawaii film that aims and succeeds at capturing local flavor and evoking wry social commentary.

By the film’s end, it’s clear Jane’s obsession to witness the might of active lava mirrors the private pain erupting within her. They say “The Journey is Everything,” though “Stoke” knows that its less about getting there than the people you call your friends who are standing beside you. This is an entertaining and, at times, spellbinding indie that showcases the promising arrival of new talent on both sides of the camera.

Three Stars

-originally published in Maui Time Weekly.