Even with one arm, Bethany Hamilton can surf circles around you.

Theatrical Release Date: 09/03/2010
Director: Dana Brown

Are you a surfer? If not, you may just want to go ahead and move on to the next review because the surf documentary “Highwater” isn’t made with you in mind. The main focus of the film is the Triple Crown of Surfing which is held in the North Shore of Hawaii beginning in November and ending in December each year. And that would be fine, if a non-surfer like myself knew anything about surf contests past what T&C Surf Design taught me on the 8 bit Nintendo system over 20 years ago.

Director Dana Brown, who made the very accessible “Step Into Liquid”, has instead decided to spend most of the film blandly narrating different rounds of each contest (there are 3 events with men’s and women’s divisions in each). It actually has the feel of some junior high report about what some kid did last summer, as he non-descriptively recounts what he saw at the beach while in Hawaii.

First he’ll show a few surfers competing, making a move or two which may or may not score huge points with the judges – aside from wiping out, I couldn’t tell you if there are bonus points for style or whether surfing through a pipe earns more than a tail whip at the crest of a wave. Then he’ll make mention of the favorites in each specific event. Then there are a few more scenes of surfers wiping out or making the most of each wave (which I can only assume because they don’t wipe out). Then he rattles off the names of the top three or four competitors.

There’s no real drama here, we rarely get a sense that one surfer’s wave will make or break some deadlock in the judges’ scores (whatever they may be at the time) and even when we are told it’s a crucial wave, it’s hard to get that same tense feeling one might have when they understand what’s going on; like if a batter comes up in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded needing to get a hit or if there are only five seconds left on the clock and a football team is on the ten yard line, down five points in the fourth quarter.

Where “Highwater” works is in the spotlight on various surfers. We learn about Bethany Hamilton, a teenage girl back surfing after losing an arm in a shark attack. Then there’s rising young star Jon Jon Florence who’s not old enough to drive but still ripping it up with the big boys. An especially poignant segment covers the death of Malik Joyeux and how the surf community honors his memory. And other surfers with names even I recognize (Kelly Slater, Rochelle Ballard, Layne Beachley) are featured at one point or another.

It’s during these moments that the film becomes something for anyone interested in surf culture, not just for those already in the know. There are a few truly beautiful shots of Hawaiian scenery but for the most part, the action is squarely focused on surfers during their competitions, which is still fun to watch but without any real context about the event given begins to feel tedious as the film continues on.

Overall, I liked seeing “Highwater” but would definitely recommend that non-surfers check out Brown’s earlier work like “Step Into Liquid” or even other films like “Riding Giants” or “The Endless Summer” (made by Dana’s father, Bruce). Because it’s so narrow in its true demographic, I can only give this a 2.5 out of 5 but if you follow surf competitions or are a surfer yourself, I’d imagine this would be great fun to watch and highly recommend finding it wherever you can, as it’s only getting a very limited theatrical release.