- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

“Step Into Liquid,” writer-director Dana Brown’s scenically awesome and emotionally disarming survey of surfers he knows and cherishes, borrows its title from a remark made by one of the subjects, who likens the sensation of riding waves to walking on water. A partisan of a new line of hydrofoil boards avows that the ride can become closer to “surfing on a cloud.”

Lest the metaphors become too ethereal, there’s also the amusing female surfer who emphasizes the risky, humbling side of seeking out the ocean as a recreational source of propulsion; she likes the sensation of being “spat out in glory” when spilled by a wave. One of the revered old-timers in the mix, Gerry Lopez, who appeared a generation ago in “Big Wednesday,” the miscalculated surfing saga, speculates that “maybe you die a little” each time your footwork and balance turn out to be overmatched by a chosen wave.

Within this blissful to masochistic range of impressions, the movie’s prevailing moods are cheerfulness and benevolence.

Mr. Brown is a modestly contemplative member of the surfing brotherhood, which he also recognizes as a considerable sisterhood during vignettes devoted to competitive female surfers. Their numbers have multiplied since his youth, which coincided with the “Gidget” movies and the emergence of his father, Bruce Brown, as an independent filmmaker with a distinctive knack for showcasing and popularizing the sport.

Dana Brown was 7 when his father’s amiable sleeper of 1966, “The Endless Summer,” a travelogue about two pals in search of “the perfect wave,” made a splash at the box office.

Armed with the latest enhancements in 35 mm and high-definition digital cameras, he’s now in a position to cover surfing itself with a pictorial sweep and precision that overwhelm the charms of “The Endless Summer,” shot single-handed, more or less, by the elder Brown with 16 mm equipment. The compositions in “Step Into Liquid,” booked exclusively at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema, are systematically fabulous. There’s an early vista in which a tow-line surfer and a catamaran are riding the crest of the same wave, and the beauty of it all takes your breath away.

That sensation is repeated often in the movie. You kind of anticipate it after a while, given the aptitude of Mr. Brown, cinematographer John-Paul Beeghly and the other principal camera operators. Surfing is unsurpassed as a photogenic athletic spectacle.

Mr. Brown creates the likable, if perhaps misleading, impression that family loyalties and surfing loyalties are indivisible.

The vignette structure tends to alternate comic, informative and unexpectedly touching episodes, all supplemented by surfing footage. The comic material begins with a trip to Sheboygan, Wis., where a small but hardy bunch takes on the challenge of Lake Michigan’s wave patterns and boldly compares them to the celebrated “pipeline” on Oahu, which Mr. Brown visits immediately afterward to illustrate the exaggerations.

“Liquid” acknowledges the growth of the sport from a regional craze in Australia, Hawaii and California into a global business with millions of fans and potential customers.

A wild bunch from Santa Cruz, Calif., nicknamed the Supercharged Mavericks, tends to seek out higher and higher waves, culminating in a voyage to the edge of the continental shelf, a hundred miles or so west of San Diego.

The most stirring vignette concerns Jesse Brad Billauer, a once promising young surfer who was paralyzed during a competition. His brother and a group of friends escort him down to the beach, where he can resume riding a board under their seemingly nonchalant but watchful supervision.

Mr. Brown’s light touch and sincerity protect the serious, haunted undercurrents from clashing with the sunnier or goofier elements. The insular, corny appeal of his father’s movies expands into something more comprehensive and emotionally complex.

At one point, Mr. Brown fondly observes that the Mavericks embody “every personality defect in the book.” The movie accumulates such a rich gallery of surfing types that it comes closer to unifying every sort of temperament in the human family. The cliche “feel-good” really won’t suffice to express both the visual and sentimental gratification available in this exemplary sports documentary. It’s a feel-sublime classic.

Four stars****

WHAT: “Step Into Liquid”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Fleeting profanity and comic vulgarity, consistent with the PG category)

CREDITS: Written, directed and edited by Dana Brown. Producer and director of photography: John-Paul Beeghly. Music by Richard Gibbs

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes




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