Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

HIGHWATER (Photo: Outsider Pictures/Apostrophe Films)

Written & Directed by Dana Brown
Produced by
C. Rich Wilson
Released by Outsider Pictures/Apostrophe Films
USA. 91 min. Not Rated

If ABC’s Wide World of Sports were still on the air in 2005, Highwater could have been its coverage of the Triple Crown of the pro surfing world tour, where the top surfers (and fans, photographers and financiers) gather for 55 days, from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, on the North Shore of Oahu.

Director Dana Brown not only assisted his father Bruce with the sequels to his dad’s influential Endless Summer (1966) (its iconic poster was a star in my adolescent bedroom), but he made his own thrillingly-shot surf movie Step Into Liquid (2003). So it’s a big surprise that the focus here is much less on the surfing and more on the surfers, perhaps because this project started out as an idea for a reality TV series.

These tanned folks who follow the call of the waves are an entertainingly eccentric bunch—story-telling old-timers, smoothly confident current champions, young whippersnappers, and the soul surfers who eschew competition and sponsorship altogether. All are equalized in the agony of defeat by the ferocity of the North Shore waves, where each of the three competitions is staged along a different section of its seven miles.

While loquacious surfers from all over the world are interviewed, the locals are the most interesting, and each deserves more screen time than these quick conversations and glimpses at their surfing styles. Poncho Sullivan, the requisite oldest rookie on the crowded beach, tries one last time to qualify for the big time, cheered on by his wife and small children. Sunny Garcia, the grizzled veteran, looks to prove he’s still got the right stuff. Still-young Alex Florence ran away from the Jersey Shore as a teenager to compete on the North Shore and now raises three surfing sons on her own, including 13-year-old fearless phenom Jon-Jon. A couple of shaggy blond surfer dudes colorfully describe growing up a couple of blocks away, where the North Shore is pretty much the playground for their elementary school. But they doth protest a bit too much that they represent generations of poor locals as opposed to the rich folks who are building big houses on the coast.

Unfortunately, one has to listen to the director’s narration that can be as insufferable as it is informative, including his proud papa act for involving his son Wesley as a third-generation surf filmmaker. Brown makes a point of including the concurrent women’s competitions, but he introduces the top pro female surfers by commenting on their attractiveness in two-piece bathing suits. He pauses after each citation of their accomplishments with the qualifier “for a woman.” Are, say, Venus and Serena Williams’ athleticism and achievements in tennis spoken of in this way?

Brown lets cocky Australian surfers reminisce about the antagonisms they faced when they challenged the Hawaiian surfers in the 1970’s (discussed a bit more in Jeremy Gosch’s Bustin’ Down The Door). But no Hawaiians are interviewed for their perspective about how the conflicts grew out of concerns over outsiders intruding on and profiting from native traditions. Instead, one sees the lovely annual memorial ceremony for the legendary lifeguard Eddie Aikau, where surfers join hands on their boards out at sea, a service that’s tragically repeated for a young contestant in the Triple Crown.

For all the superficial clichés of sports reportage up to then, the concluding sequence rises above the rest of the film, aesthetically and emotionally. Reclusive soul surfer legend Eric Haas spontaneously shows up after the competition and leads the film crew to the beach bereft of the usual crowds. Lifeguards have pulled everyone out due to unsafe conditions. As the waves crash from tremendous heights, he serenely paddles out and faces the raging ocean alone. He gracefully rides the towering waves all the way back to the shore and walks away. Totally old-school tubular, dude. Nora Lee Mandel
August 27, 2010



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us