Surfing isn’t about “a lifestyle,” Dana Brown philosophizes not far into Step Into Liquid; it’s “about life.” Sadly, beach-bum bumper-sticker wisdom is about as deep as the waters get in this draggy, visually underwhelming portrait of contemporary surf culture. Though the movie is being promoted on the back of its lineage—the filmmaker’s father, Bruce Brown, directed the landmark surf doc The Endless Summer (1966) and The Endless Summer 2 (1994)—its status as unofficial third installment should be taken more as a warning: Like many late-franchise attempts, it stretches its material thin and grasps at novelty, overstaying its welcome despite a handful of requisite dude-that-is-so-fucking-cool moments.
Cut into a meandering magazine-style format and set to aggressively mediocre pop, Step explores Brown’s “life” thesis through portraits of new and unusual happenings within the wave-riding world, stressing the message that true surfers will put board to water in the unlikeliest places. The Irish American Malloy brothers surf the frigid seacoast of County Donegal and attempt to unite Protestant and Catholic kids through body-suited lessons. Tubby Wisconsinites ride the low, brown lakeshore of Sheboygan, then beach-barbecue bratwurst. Texans chase supertankers and ride their wakes in the Gulf of Mexico. An American veteran attempts to surf Vietnam with his son, surrounded by gangs of smiling local children.
Though there are a few IMAX-worthy scenes—madmen surfing 60-foot waves a hundred miles offshore and the amazingly micromanaged zigzag virtuosity of young Australian hotshot Taj Burrow—there aren’t enough to float Brown’s human-interest take through a full 90 minutes, even with an all-star parade of surf-legend commentators. One of them notes that surfers are content to just sit on the beach and watch the waves for hours on end. If that’s the case, Step Into Liquid definitely won’t best its real-world competition.