Call it “Floating Poets Society,” or perhaps “Dead Sailors Society,” but this coming-of-age story, circa 1960, has much the same feel as that earlier release, with a group of teenage boys undergoing a rite of passage — under the tutelage of a stern mentor — by sailing around the Caribbean for a year. Director Ridley Scott’s lavish production isn’t totally satisfying, coasting aimlessly at times before suddenly leaping to a more intense dramatic plane. Pic could nevertheless leave a decent box office wake if younger audiences can be lured to this fact-based high-seas adventure.
Much of that may have to do with the appeal of “Party of Five” star Scott Wolf, who provides the movie’s centerpiece and narrator as Chuck Gieg, a high school senior through whose eyes the audience sees the boat’s stern Skipper (Jeff Bridges) and his other, sometimes troubled classmates aboard the Albatross.
To that extent, in fact, as much as anything else, “White Squall” may be remembered as Wolf’s coming-out party, given his teen heart-throb status on the marginally rated Fox series and seeming potential as a box office draw.
The movie’s foremost problem has to do with its structure. Pic takes plenty of time introducing its attractive young cast as they bond while sailing around the Caribbean, before abruptly erupting into the storm sequence that claims several lives.
That, in turn, is followed by a brief, anticlimactic courtroom tribunal — a sort of poor man’s “The Caine Mutiny” that, true story or not, feels a bit forced and contrived. Each of the young men is plagued by his own demons, including Frank (Jeremy Sisto), who struggles against a domineering father; Gil (Ryan Phillippe), whose fear of heights stems from an earlier tragedy; and Dean (Eric Michael Cole), whose bullying ways hide insecurity about his academic skills.
Their interaction and inauguration aboard the ship provide plenty of amusing and moving moments but also long languid stretches, making one yearn for the storm to arrive.
When it finally does, it’s worth the wait — a staggering, if at times confusing, sequence in which the boat is sunk and various members of the crew are lost.
Yet Scott and writer Todd Robinson take such a long time getting there that they don’t really have time to do justice to the af-termath of those events. One example: Those without an academic interest in sailing might appreciate a brief explanation of what exactly a “white squall” is and why no one seems to believe in them.
In the same vein, the filmmakers take a rather facile, anachronistic “Oprah”-esque approach toward the boys’ feelings about their families and the Skipper’s role as a “tough love”-minded surrogate father.
Bridges is appropriately stern in the role, though what drives him is never really explored, even through his relationship with his wife (Caroline Goodall), the ship’s doctor. Wolf proves the perfect Everykid, brimming with fresh-faced likability, while the rest of the cast is solid, with Cole the most notable standout.
Scott remains a gifted visual stylist, and cinematographer Hugh Johnson beautifully captures the open seas as well as the ship’s confined spaces. Indeed , early shots, in which the crew has its first experience with rough waters, are gut-churning enough that some audience members may feel queasy.
Other tech credits are equally impressive, with St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Grenada providing the principal locales.