Santa Cruz Good Times

Dec 01st
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film_HIGHWATER-BethanyIt's the perfect antidote to a muggy summer evening: wave after wave of crystal-clear, turquoise walls of water towering some 20 feet up into the sky, then crashing down again in an explosion of surf, like shattering diamonds. These are the true stars of Dana Brown's latest surf documentary, Highwater, the gigantic, justly fabled waves off the North Shore of Oahu. Every so often you might notice a tiny human silhouette maneuvering a board under the curl or plowing over a crest, but mostly it's the natural spectacle of the thundering waves themselves, more than the people trying to ride them, that deserve the accolade "awesome." Brown (son of Bruce Brown, whose seminal The Endless Summer in 1966 set the standard for the genre) goes to the North Shore to document surfing's Triple Crown, a prestigious series of surf contests that cap the annual pro surfing circuit with a six-week climax in Oahu. (As one on-camera surf enthusiast explains, "Hawaii is a speed bump in the middle of the ocean," whose powerful break creates "the biggest ride-able waves on the planet.") Brown follows the pros, fans, wannabes, hangers-on, tourists, and locals from Haliewa Alii to Sunset Beach to the fearsome Banzai Pipeline. He follows the fortunes of various contestants throughout the three events, each with its individual winner, whose top scorers are then in competition for the title of Triple Crown Winner. Brown doesn't explain the scoring film_highwatersystem, who the judges are, or how they evaluate, so the details of the contest are a little hazy. He's more interested in the surfers themselves—from veterans Sunny Garcia (six-time Triple Crown Winner), Pat O'Connell and Kelly Slater to 13-year-old North Shore homeboy John John Florence. He builds up a little tourists vs. locals drama, celebrates the spirit of a place where lifeguarding is a career, and captures a genuine moment when the competition halts and the surfers paddle out to form a memorial circle for one of their own who never made it out of the pipe. (He also devotes a few well-meaning, if perfunctory, scenes to the North Shore women's surf competitions, still evidently deep in the shadow of the guys.) Hand-held guerrilla production values chip away a bit more of the film's potential. But if the sheer majesty of "the best waves in the world" floats your board, this movie won't disappoint. Not rated. 90 minutes. (★★1/2) | LJ

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