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Review: ‘Highwater’

Surf Doc Falls Flat

Above: Riding the waves in "Highwater"

If you are a surfer and starved for surf films “Highwater” (opened September 3 at AMC Fashion Valley) might be a nice way to close out your summer.

You don’t find many surf films in mainstream theaters and good ones are even more rare. Dana Brown’s latest entry into the genre is actually from 2008 and focuses on surfing’s Triple Crown, a two-month competition based on the North Shore of Oahu.

In a way, "Highwater" is the antithesis of “The Endless Summer,” the film made by Brown’s father, Bruce Brown, more than four decades ago. “The Endless Summer” introduced surfing culture to mainstream America (till then it had been pretty much background details and stereotyped characters on TV and in teen movies). In Bruce Brown’s documentary, it was all about freedom, rejecting the rat race, and searching the globe for the perfect wave. His surfer were free spirits on their own and somehow outside the establishment. But his son’s film proves how commercialized surfing has become and how the sport seems to have soldout. In some ways, the surf competitions -- at least to an outsider like myself -- are the least interesting aspect of the surfing world.

Sure there are still some lovely shots of surfing (but sometimes disrupted by fast cutting) to inspire. And the film does offer a snapshot of surfing right now yet the film and its subjects prove far less engaging than what we found in his dad’s film. If you are not a surfer and not into surf competition there is little to hold your interest here. Dana Brown’s earlier “Step into Liquid” had more charm and interest, and of course Stacy Peralta’s “Riding Giants” served up a great portrait of a particular subculture of surfing. But "Highwater" fails to build any tension over the competition and doesn't provide the kind of insight into the sport to really rivet us.

Surfing the North Shore in "Highwater"

Outsider Pictures

Above: Surfing the North Shore in "Highwater"

In the first five minutes of “Highwater” (unrated), Brown identifies himself as Bruce Brown’s son and basically tries to anoint himself as the one best suited to carry on the surf doc tradition. Unfortunately, that comparison only hurts him and makes us yearn for the fun and innocence of his dad’s film, or the energy and savvy of Peralta’s “Riding Giants.” Brown weighs his film down with his own narration and doesn’t know how to package his material so it doesn’t come across like a industry sponsored sports event on ESPN. Final analysis: pretty but bland.

Companion viewing: “The Endless Summer,” “Riding Giants, “Step into Liquid,” “Big Wednesday”

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