So awash in natural beauty and big waves that the spectacular eventually becomes pedestrian, “Highwater” is surfer/helmer Dana Brown’s celebration of (and sales pitch for) extreme surfing. Brown’s enthusiasm for the sport tends to overwhelm any critique of its inherent dangers –the one death that occurs is spin-doctored into a tribute to the surfers’ sense of community, rather than their craziness. But the kinetic energy and perils of “Highwater” make this docu a nonfiction thriller, a propulsive film that will appeal primarily to the converted, although no one watching it will be bored.
Brown doesn’t have quite the hook here he had in his acclaimed “Step Into Liquid” (2003), a tour of extreme and eccentric surfing practices around the world — from long-distance surfers following oil-tanker wakes off the Texas Gulf Coast to the Lake Michigan ripple-riders of Sheboygan, Wis. The monster waves of Oahu’s North Shore were part of that movie and they’re the focus here, as Brown follows pro surfing’s Triple Crown — and manages, strenuously it seems, to avoid plugging any corporate sponsors, except when their posters are unavoidably in the way of the camera.
Aside from the lunatics who actually engage these 30-foot waves during the so-called Hawaiian “winter” (“These are not normal people,” Brown narrates, in his driest, funniest aside), the camera is the star. D.p. Steve Matzinger and his shooters, notably water cameramen Larry Haynes and Mike Prickett, bring the viewer virtually inside the waves that make the sport so thrilling, and the danger so palpable. When they don’t — when the surfer disappears inside the pipeline for what seems like minutes — the suspense provides a tiny, edge-of-the-seat nerve attack.
Brown is a proselytizer, and his narration is full of hyperbole, overstatement and heavy salesmanship but, mercifully, avoids the word “stoked.” Long-time champ Sunny Garcia is described as “fearlessly human,” however; the jury hasn’t come back on that one.
The Triple Crown of Hawaiian surfing consists of the Op Pro Hawaii in Haleiwa, the O’Neill World Cup on Sunset Beach and the finale, the Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Masters. “Highwater” concentrates on the last of these, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in late 2005/early 2006. Brown found the drama in that competition — Garcia was at the end of his career; 13-year-old Jon Jon Florence was at the beginning of his. Pat O’Connell (highlighted in “The Endless Summer 2,” which Brown made with his father Bruce) was having a late-inning renaissance, and Chelsea Georgeson was confirming her status as the world’s top woman surfer.
“Highwater,” which is wonderfully edited by Brown and his son Wes, is funnier than the helmer’s previous films, and rich in side stories. One of the best concerns the elusive, enigmatic Eric Haas, a North Shore local and celebrated oddball whose surfing skills may in fact surpass anyone else around. Brown captures him, at one point late in the film, surfing what is described as a suicidal stretch of the North Shore. Haas rides his board all the way onto the beach; he comes so close to shore he could have worn his good shoes. If “Highwater” were “The Right Stuff,” Haas would be Chuck Yeager; if it were about Major League Baseball, he’d be Josh Gibson — a question mark that enhances the whole film.
Production values are tops. Pic lacked end credits at the Los Angeles Film Festival screening caught.