Spectacular surfing footage highlights Dana Brown’s “Step Into Liquid,” a superb original docu from the son of surf-docu pioneer Bruce Brown (following several retrospective docus that “revisited” his father’s work). But “Step Into Liquid” isn’t the usual surf pic with surfing as the road to coolness, babes and muscles Rather, it’s an awe-inspiring survey of global surf culture, with the power to crush the post-“Gidget” decades of Hollywood stereotyping of surfers and surfing. Reaching well beyond even the niche audience for legitimate surf docus, pic could be the first of its kind to achieve wide mainstream exposure since Brown senior’s “The Endless Summer 2” in 1994.
The surf movie has been caught on a rocky point break, at high tide, with no way out ever since Mike Hynson and Robert August found the “perfect wave” at the end of the first “Endless Summer” movie 37 years ago; where to go from there? Yet Brown makes the format new again, introducing the primal pleasures of surfing to a generation weaned on Bill and Ted, Jeff Spicoli and the most crassly commercialized years of the surfing era.
Brown isn’t out to rant against the corporate takeover of the board-riding industry (other films, like Stacy Peralta’s “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” have done that). But he is very interested in breaking down stereotypes and suffusing the image of surfing with some much-needed positive energy.
Brown approaches surfing less as a sport than as a language — a common tongue uniting disparate nomads from all corners of the Earth. And as Brown undertakes his multi-year study of that language, he’s in pursuit not of waves or summers, but of an understanding of the ageless appeal of surfing.
Journey takes Brown from such unexpected surfing hotbeds as Sheboygan, Wisc., to the monstrous Cortez Banks to Rapa Nui and beyond.
Adopting the travelogue format, “Step Into Liquid” provides an introductory overview of contempo surfing, from the advent of women’s pro surfing to such new technologies as “foil boards,” which allow riders to literally hover above the surface of the water. But Brown’s interest remains the surfers themselves and why they are so inextricably drawn to the water. Pic is about the ecstatic connection that takes place between body, board and wave, and it comes about as close as any movie might to conveying that sensation; you feel vaguely stoked when it’s over.With a self-deprecating narration voiced by Brown that frequently evokes his father at his deadpan best, “Step Into Liquid” emphatically reminds us that “real surfers don’t say dude.” More often than not, Brown’s subjects are not impossibly bronzed Adonis-types, but everyday folks like San Francisco’s Dale Webster, who’s been surfing (although not very well) every day of his life, rain or shine, in sickness or health, since 1976.
When Brown turns his attention to the pros — an illustrious lineup that includes Kelly Slater, Laird Hamilton and Rob Machado — “Step Into Liquid” does not lose its genuine character. This sports movie is unconcerned with personal glory.
The surfing footage is remarkable, shot by cinematographer John-Paul Beeghly in fast, close-up images that take the viewer alongside and underneath waves with a thrilling crispness and clarity. Brown displays a special affinity for all-encompassing wide shots that show the surfer as a small speck against a churning, sea-blue landscape, like a horseman riding across the horizon at the start of a Western.
But the most extraordinary sights captured by “Step Into Liquid” often occur closer to shore. Pro-surfing brothers Dan, Chris and Keith Malloy teach impromptu lessons at an Irish surf school, as Catholic and Protestant youths frolic together joyfully in the frigid whitewater; Brown follows Vietnam vet Jim Knost as he returns to ‘Nam (accompanied by son Alex) for the first time since the war, meeting up with the Da Nang Surfing Club.