In Growing Up Local, a Waimānalo Boy Battles for His Destiny

The locally made film opens on Aug. 4 for a limited two-week run at Consolidated Theatres in Ward and Pearlridge.



In the trailer for Growing Up Local, a father tells his son to give up on leaving Hawai‘i. “Out there, beyond the waters, is nothing. And the further out you go, the more nothing there is.”


Growing Up Local Premiere Poster

Photo: Courtesy of Kinetic Productions

Set in a tough Waimānalo neighborhood, Growing Up Local tells the story of Stanley Nagata, a high school boy forced to choose between his dreams for the future, the weighty expectations of his father and his loyalty to his friends, who are embroiled in an escalating feud with a group of boys in Pālolo. The film also explores the generational burden carried by the Nagata family, beginning with Stanley’s grandfather, who fought in the 442nd Infantry Regiment during World War II.


Premiering on Aug. 4, Growing Up Local stars an entirely local cast and seeks to depict an authentic, local coming-of-age story. In anticipation of the release, I sat down to discuss the film with writer-director James Sereno, spoken word poet Kealoha and lead actor Makoa Sanchez.



Writer-Director James Sereno

With Growing Up Local, Sereno aims to tell what he calls an “inside-out” story. “I think there are a lot of great stories that are told about Hawai‘i. All the TV shows, Magnum [P.I.], Hawai‘i Five-O, all of them show a beautiful Hawai‘i. And they’re great shows, but I would call those ‘outside-in’ stories. They’re an outside point of view looking into our world … [Growing Up Local] really wasn’t that. This was made for a local audience. It was made for us who grew up here.”


Sereno is a Kaimukī/Kapahulu-born filmmaker who spent nearly a decade in Los Angeles working in film and advertising. Twenty years ago, he made the gutsy decision to move home and open his own film company, Kinetic Productions. You may not know it, but you’ve probably seen his work in commercials for local brands like Zippy’s, Hawaiian Airlines and First Hawaiian Bank.


Outside of the commercials Sereno creates for his clients, his movies tend toward grittier depictions of life in Hawai‘i. His 2011 film Paradise Broken, for example, is a story of addiction and violence set in the seedy underbelly of Waikīkī.


Sereno has a friendly and frank demeanor. When our interview began, he slid me a lime green business card sporting a cartoon illustration of his own face. Like many seasoned storytellers, he listens attentively and absorbs personal details. He loves movies, loves what he does and doesn’t get a whole lot of sleep.


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The Origin of the Film

Sereno actually wrote the initial script for Growing Up Local nearly 20 years ago. The film is based on the short story “Way Back to Pālolo” by Stuart Ching, which Sereno discovered in a local anthology by Bamboo Ridge Press. Drawn to the characters, Sereno optioned the rights to the story and began working with Ching on a screenplay.


“It almost got made back then,” says Sereno. “It was a very different movie—it was a little more Hollywood, it had some Hollywood actors … for whatever reason, I just didn’t make it.” The script sat on Sereno’s hard drive for years until he stumbled upon it during the pandemic. Reinvigorated by the story, Sereno decided to bring Growing Up Local to fruition, but he needed to tell it with local talent in a truly local setting. To maintain control over the film’s authenticity, he financed the project himself. He is not looking for a distributor, nor is he seeking to place the film on a festival circuit.


Bts Growing Up Local

Behind the scenes of Growing Up Local. Photos: Courtesy of Kinetic Productions


Filming in Waimānalo

Growing Up Local is set in the streets and neighborhoods of Waimānalo. The sprawling Ko‘olau mountain range looms in the backdrop, separating the embattled Waimānalo and Pālolo boys. Sereno brought cultural consultants onto the project to ensure that the characters and setting were as accurate as possible. His one creative liberty was to transform Waimānalo Elementary & Intermediate School into the fictional Waimānalo High School, which Stanley and his friends attend. At this interview, Sereno wore a green Waimānalo High School shirt, a special memento for the cast and crew of the film.


Sereno recounts the countless permissions he asked of area homeowners to film in the neighborhood. With his experience shooting commercials, Sereno expected to run into difficulty, but the community was overwhelmingly supportive and excited for the film. “When we reached out, every single person said yes,” Sereno says. Even as the production led to traffic blockades that inconvenienced the community, no one complained.


The Nalo Boys from Growing Up Local

Photo: Courtesy of Kinetic Productions


Poet Laureate Kealoha Speaks Truth

Growing Up Local is a testament to the network Sereno has cultivated over the years. The trust he built in the community paved the way for a smoother production. Sereno describes his cast and crew as a mixture of fresh faces and veterans who have collaborated with him on past projects.


One notable partner is Kealoha, Hawai‘i’s first Poet Laureate and an internationally acclaimed slam poet. Sereno and Kealoha worked together over a decade ago on an anti-smoking commercial for the Hawai‘i Department of Health (“Damn, we did a good job on that!” Sereno exclaims, causing Kealoha to burst into laughter). When Sereno reached out to Kealoha to develop the Stanley character’s burgeoning talent as a slam poet, Kealoha jumped at the chance.


“I always say: if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will,” Kealoha says. He recounts that he cried after reading the script for the first time. “This film really has the [power] to move people, to make people think about their lives and who they are in the context of their community.” With his creative insight as a slam poet, Kealoha and Sereno teamed up to write and direct Stanley’s spoken word performances.


Makoa Sanchez’s Acting Debut

While Sereno was initially able to populate the supporting cast of the film, he was missing the most vital piece of the puzzle: the lead role of Stanley. After poring through audition tapes, he still hadn’t found the right match. “It’s a hard role,” Sereno says. “You have to be one of these kids who’s strong and from the streets, but you’re a little different, you have a little bit of a different point of view.”


As Sereno pondered how to fill the role, his casting director asked him, “Why didn’t you pick Makoa? I told you he was the best guy.” Sereno asked, “Who’s Makoa?” When he opened his junk email, he found a single audition tape from Makoa Sanchez, watched it and almost cried. “Oh my God,” Sereno remembers thinking. “This guy’s good!”


Humble and soft-spoken, 22-year-old Makoa Sanchez serves as a youth mentor for underprivileged kids in his hometown of Kāne‘ohe. He has a background in modeling and a political science degree from the University of Hawai‘i, but no acting credits to speak of. Growing Up Local is not just Sanchez’s first lead acting role, but, as he describes it, his “first anything” role. Like the character Stanley, Sanchez is at a crossroads in his life. While he intends to attend flight school in California, his newfound love for acting may complicate that decision.


Sanchez dipped his toes into acting over the pandemic and ended up connecting with the Growing Up Local casting director, who encouraged him to send in an audition tape. He thought he didn’t stand a chance but decided to give it a go anyway. “Hey, you may as well try,” Sanchez says. “Always say yes to every new opportunity.”


Albert Theissen Makoa In The Ring

Photo: Courtesy of Kinetic Productions


After a few months of waiting, fully expecting not to hear back, Sanchez got a call that led to a Zoom meeting with James Sereno. Once Sereno saw the chemistry between Sanchez and the other cast members, he was a lock for the role of Stanley.


In the film’s trailer, on the verge of a fistfight, Stanley yells, “Come on, brah, give ‘um!” Sanchez says he harnessed that energy to compensate for his lack of acting experience and immersed himself in the role. He just had to “give ‘um.”


“He’s a brilliant guy,” Kealoha says of Sanchez. “He was Stanley for that period of time.”


The Film’s Impact

With a fresh cast of local talent, Growing Up Local seeks to depict Hawai‘i in a way that rings true to the people who live here. Sereno believes that while Growing Up Local portrays distinctive aspects of life in Hawai‘i, such as a focus on the generational family and the sense of pride that local people carry, the story is a universal one about the conflicts and traumas that exist in all families and the journey to find your own path.


I asked everyone who they hoped would see the film and what they hoped viewers would take away after watching it.


Sanchez dedicates his performance to his family and hopes that the film can empower the youth of Hawai‘i—including the kids he mentors at S.W. King Intermediate School. “A lot of the time I tell [the kids] about going out and doing more than what you think you’re capable of … there’s this sentiment among the kids of … ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that. I could never.’ … I just want to teach them that you can. I didn’t think that I could do this at first, but I did it.”


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Kealoha considers the film to be “a love song to the people of Hawai‘i.” He hopes that it leads viewers to introspect on their own personal journeys. “Folks who consider Hawai‘i home. Folks who grew up here. Folks who have considered leaving. Folks who have considered the cost of staying … [This film] puts into context who we are as people, the life choices we make and all the things that go into creating who we are.”


Sereno hopes that viewers will resonate with the characters, the setting and the story. “[The film is] very local in how we act and relate to each other.” He hopes that viewers will watch the characters and find resemblances to the people they know in everyday life. More than anything, he hopes that viewers will find truth in what he, Sanchez, Kealoha and the entire cast and crew have given of themselves on the screen.


James Sereno And Makoa Sanchez

Makoa Sanchez (left) and James Sereno (right). Photo: Alexander Pang


Fulfilling a Dream

After the interview, I joined Sereno and Sanchez in the Kinetic Productions office kitchen, which is decked out like a retro 1950s diner. Over the countertop, someone arranged a collection of Star Wars Funko Pops into dioramas from the movies. I snapped a photo of Sereno and Sanchez on the pop-colored diner chairs, then stuck around to talk story.


When Sereno left Hawai‘i to attend film school at the University of Southern California, he always knew that he would find his way back home. That came at a professional cost. Sometimes, old contacts from L.A. ring him up to see what he’s been up to. He’s been called a loser for moving back to Hawai‘i to make advertisements and local movies. But he doesn’t see it that way.


“I look out the window, and I see the beautiful clouds,” he says. “That was my dream. To come back here and tell these stories.”



Growing Up Local premieres on Friday, Aug. 4, for a limited two-week run at Consolidated Theatres in Ward and Pearlridge. For more information on the film, visit