Film Review: Highwater

This surfing documentary plays like a more intimate, folksy companion piece to its superior predecessor, <i>Step into Liquid</i>.

In Highwater, filmmaker Dana Brown ventures to the fabled North Shore of Oahu to cover the prestigious Triple Crown surfing championship. It’s a follow-up to Brown’s 2001 Step into Liquid, which remains the definitive surfing documentary, unless you count the seminal work of his father, Bruce, whose idyllic Endless Summer pioneered the genre in 1966. This time around, Brown’s approach is cozier, less far-reaching, focusing on that strip of Hawaiian coast which includes the beaches Sunset, Pipeline, Haleiwa and Waimea where, every winter, the waves rise to towering heights, providing an irresistible magnet to the talented people crazy/courageous enough to try to tame them with their boards.

We are introduced to a colorful assortment of characters, all of them fierce competitors, including local Hawaiian favorite Sunny Garcia, whose irresistibly winning smile matches his name; Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm during a shark attack yet still rides the waves; the mind-boggling 13-year-old Jon-Jon Florence, who received his first professional sponsorship at age six; superstar cover boy Kelly Slater, who set the template for the blond surfer hunkdom that attracts such lucrative sponsorships, and phantom mystery guy Eric Haas, a North Shore legend given to wearing football gear while charging the most perilous swells. Many of them comment on the way the North Shore itself has changed over the years from a sleepy little township to million-dollar real estate which makes it difficult for lifelong surfers to even consider living there, which anyone who has experienced the bumper-to-bumper traffic, rivaling that of the Hamptons in July, can easily attest to. The film also highlights the spirited rivalry between the local Hawaiian surfers—few of whom actually possess native blood, most of them being as WASP-y as a Bruce Weber Abercrombie layout—and their equally Aryan Australian competitors.

It’s still very absorbing stuff, filmed with obvious affection and respect, but Brown gets a little carried away this time with cinematic trickery, like split screens, which often interrupt the actual surfing. As with dancing, which should be filmed in continuous takes in full body shots, I prefer seeing the full progress of the board through a wave’s tube; Brown’s flashy editing might give you exciting climaxes, but seriously interferes with the actual beauty, grace and hard-won accomplishment of this most easily photogenic of sports. The final competition itself is also given somewhat short shrift, after all the elaborate lead-in, with more verbal description of what happened than actual exciting footage.