Dana’s father, Bruce Brown, invented the surf doc genre; starting in 1958 with the laid back “Slippery When Wet” and the 1959 follow up “Surf Crazy.” His classic, the 1966 “The Endless Summer” spawned two sequels and Dana assembled the last one ” The Endless Summer Revisited“, from outtakes. Dana’s “2003 “Step Into Liquid“, an “awesome” tour of the international surf culture, redefined the genre. Dana’s latest, “Highwater” doesn’t rise to the heights of his first film, but there’s plenty to enjoy here.
The film takes on a single competition the two-month Triple Crown on Oahu’s North Shore (the legendary “Seven Mile Miracle“) where the most dangerous waves in the world pound the glorious beaches. Over 400 international and local competitors show up.
You simply can’t shoot competition surfing in the same way as pleasure surfing. The surfers’ heats are timed, so Brown relies on a lot of quick cuts and, unfortunately split screens. In-your-face camera work puts you deeply in the action. (Sometimes all you see is cameramen in wet suits.) Because the moves are so fast, we watch them in slo-mo. Brown’s narration is a bit annoying (he’s terminally condescending to the women surfers (Sofia Mulanovich and Carissa Moore), as is his overly kinetic edit.
We don’t get those full tube shots that were the glory of his first film until the very end of the film. We do get some exciting moves, startling climaxes and some memorable high-res surf in-the-face close-ups.
Brown starts with a helicopter view of Hawaii: next an intro to the pro surfers (in all their glory), young would-be pros (even a couple of pre teens) and old timers working for that last perfect ride. It seems like everyone, except the elusive ‘soul surfers” are angling for an endorsement deal.
Brown gets the culture and revels in the mystical quality of the community. We can still glean the blissful eco-Zen culture that spread worldwide before hip-hop was a gleam in Grandmaster Flash’s eyes. Everyone’s upbeat, even the disabled old surfers.
Wave king Bethany Hamilton rides the waves after losing an arm to a shark. Surfer Alex Florence raised her three sons, including the prodigy Jon- Jon, who attracted pro sponsorship at age six. Poncho Sullivan tries to qualify (His kids and wife are there for morale.)
Six-time tournament champion Hawaiian Sonny Garcia prays “for another hurricane to come through and rip down these houses,”
All the locals, including high school kids who treated the perilous waves as their school playground, complain about the transformation the competition wrought, helping to morph their laid back beach community into an overbuilt real estate strip that rivals Honolulu.
There are a couple of memorial ceremonies (for lifeguard legend Eddie Aikau) and the young competitor Tahitian Malik Joyeux (“Step Into Liquid,”) who is tragically killed in the competition. The community hangs tough, celebrating a joyous Hawaiian funeral in the ocean.
There are plenty of those sun drenched magical shots that make you dream about walking on water.
The final showdown between champ hunky surf-god Kelly Slater and local dark horse Kalani Chapman is reverent, breathtaking as the two ride the perfect pipes. When the reclusive “soul surfer”(no competition, no endorsements) Eric Hass (renowned for surfing Waimaia in a football jersey and helmet) finally appears, Brown shows us his solo ride on a bitchin’ deserted beach, we’re stoked.