Sure to become a sacred text to surf-movie enthusiasts, but surprisingly watchable even for those who think “goofy-footing” is a new Southern hip-hop dance craze, Dana Brown’s Highwater visits Oahu’s North Shore during the three biggest surf tournaments of the year. As a sports story, Brown’s movie underwhelms: In a fruitless attempt to keep up with the leaderboards of three separate men and women’s events, his intrusive voiceover pulls more and more characters into the film. And anyway, these competitions took place in 2005; you can Google the winners. But for devotees of the Surf God archetype—sun-kissed, wild-haired, with low-riding board shorts and dazed eyes—it’s required viewing. And as an exploration of one of the more interesting corners of America, a place where country living meets big money eight weeks out of the year, Highwater is legitimately compelling. Brown doesn’t shy away from the North Shore’s inherent conflicts—”I pray for another hurricane to come through and rip down these houses,” Hawaiian-born Sunny Garcia grouses—and he captures the North Shore’s unique vibe through lively interviews with the surfers devoted to its beaches, from world-class pros to a homegrown loon known for surfing Waimea Bay on a rescue board wearing a football jersey.
Shot mostly on digital video, Highwater‘s actual surf footage is less vivid than the gorgeous blue tableaux of Brown’s 2003 classic Step Into Liquid—or, for that matter, his dad Bruce’s Endless Summer. Highwater‘s emphasis on competition surfing, with its difficulty requirements and time limits, means that most on-the-water sequences cut quickly from move to move, offering little in the way of context. (It’s not for lack of coverage; often, we can see more wet-suited cameramen bobbing in the waves than surfers.) Only in the film’s final sequence, a duel at the Pipeline Masters between local underdog Kalani Chapman and No. 1 seed Kelly Slater, does Brown treat viewers to long, breathtaking rides through perfectly formed pipes. It’s at that moment that even a nonsurfer can understand what North Shore native Mark Healey is talking about when he describes the pleasures of surfing the big waves of Sunset Beach in December: “It makes you feel really small,” the blond dreamboat says winningly. “I love that feeling.”