Whatever the narrow demographic merits of Bruce Brown’s mid-‘60s documentary Endless Summer, the film’s gonzo approach is still memorable; through the tedium of the sun-baked philosophy at the narrative helm, there’s the sense that the surfer community had never bothered to turn a camera upon its naked passions before. This inchoate charm makes the film a surprisingly likeable and still-relevant iteration of beach-obsessed carpe diem, but it was nothing that could sustain a franchise spanning multiple movies and three generations.
Forty-five years later, the only perceivable worth of Highwater—the latest from Endless Summer scion Dana Brown—is as an instructive artifact, illustrating how industry has transformed surfing culture over the last four decades. And aside from some brief detours about the introduction of female athletes and the tyranny of merchandising, the film surrenders the grunt work of that aesthetic cross-comparison to its audience: Eschewing the opulent and meditative, if ultimately aimless, arguments for surf-life of his heritage, Brown’s work here evinces the technically deficient and emotionless curiosity of a sellout.
At the center of Highwater is the 2005 Triple Crown, a two-month competition based on the north shore of Hawaii’s Oahu island, but there’s little drama derived from the contests themselves. Brown instead interviews—and flatly narrates the backstories of—a small collection of veterans and up-and-comers (the goofily dreadlocked Robbie Page and gratingly cocky Sunny Garcia among them), orienting his content around a batch of perfunctory profiles that quickly become ESPN-monotonous when they aren’t eyebrow-raising (one of the few female talking heads attempts to argue that her gender’s league is more brutal by way of menstruation). And given the strides of cinematic technology since the 1960s, one would expect the in-water footage to more closely recreate the surfer’s visceral experience than in the 16mm Endless Summer. But any potential grandeur in the tube-riding photographed here is wrecked with hyperkinetic editing that needlessly stacks and splices images, varying aspect ratios and color temperatures every few seconds; it’s the work of a post-production neophyte feeling his way through Final Cut Pro filters and LiveType templates.
When even a death in the water during the competition is distantly catalogued with a sparkly montage and some nonsense about “dying as one lives,” we feel the lack of inspired effort asphyxiating the surfers’ dignity—more casual, about-town intermingling that should provide down-to-earth context feels forced in its shadow. Interestingly, the film’s deadened ethos in spite of its splashy subject might be best understood by an utterly incongruous third-act defense for professional surfing, which is seen by some as less noble than participating for the sheer love of the sport (though the nomenclature of the purists, a group called “soul surfers,” sounds like a short-lived James Brown backup band). “Pro surfers are in the water every day,” claims one young interviewee, as though ocean worship could be measured in frequency of contact regardless of financial gain. There’s no product being sold in Highwater (not even a brand like Quicksilver appears more than a handful of inconspicuous times), but its vapid flashiness reeks of commercialism, and director Brown seems to think himself deserving of devotee points simply for showing up with a camera.