I can’t think of anything “Highwater” brings to the surf-movie genre that hasn’t already been done. But that probably won’t matter to people who have a weakness for these things.
Count me among that group. “Highwater” is directed by Dana Brown, whose “Step Into Liquid” was among the most excitingly photographed surfing documentaries ever. He comes by it honestly: His father, Bruce Brown, the man who made the classic “The Endless Summer,” is the pioneer of surf movies.
“Highwater” arranges itself around competitions at the North Shore of Oahu — so this one becomes more of a “sports movie” than many other surf films, in part because there’s a competition, complete with winners and losers.
Brown himself seems conflicted about this approach. On the one hand, it gives the movie a structure. But it also loses a certain hang-loose quality that you look for in the genre.
At one point, there’s discussion (and some defensiveness) of the very idea of professional competitive surfing, as though anybody who makes money doing this is betraying the original purity of the sport.
Brown doesn’t quite come out and say it, but the world of surfing does seem to have been taken over largely by sponsors and money in the years since “The Endless Summer.”
Similarly, some Hawaii locals bemoan the encroachment of rich people on their formerly undeveloped turf. One longtime Hawaii surfer idly wishes for another good hurricane to chase all the newcomers away.
Some good personalities emerge, as they always will in a movie like this (in the mix is Bethany Hamilton, the plucky teen who lost an arm to a shark a few years ago). The footage itself has the usual big waves and crazy wipeouts, accompanied by music that ranges from evocative to ear-splitting.
One serious problem: Here Brown has indulged in the kind of quick editing scheme that dominates so many movies, which makes it much harder to appreciate the surfers and their skills. That jittery approach goes against the oft-stated zen appeal of surfing and I hope he rethinks his editing next time.
Of course there will be a next time: The wish-fulfillment and fantasy escape of the surf film is still there. But now you have to squint a little harder not to see the commercial interests sitting behind each wave.