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‘Step Into Liquid’ is a glorious ride

“Step Into Liquid,” the new documentary on surfing, makes even a non-swimmer long to surf. Reviewed by Jocelyn Noveck.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The mere title of this new documentary on surfing is entrancing. “Step Into Liquid” is the way one surfer describes that moment when your feet leave shore for the clear, blue waves and an adventure that only a surfboard and a big reserve of courage can provide.

Directed and narrated by Dana Brown, this film presents surfing as almost a religion, which is both good and bad. At some moments, what you see on screen is so stunningly beautiful you can’t help wanting to convert to this faith whose most ardent disciples scour the world in single-minded pursuit of “the stoke.”

It’s only bad when the chatter becomes so worshipful that you have to step back and say, wait a minute, this is just a water sport. Not only that, but how do these people make a living? And finally, it’s hard for most of us earthlings to relate to these bronzed, buff surfing gods with names like Laird and Taj and Brad, who use words like “gimongous.”

But we’re nitpicking. The occasionally exaggerated narration aside, “Step Into Liquid” is 88 minutes of watching people do something difficult, occasionally quite reckless, and unquestionably beautiful. For entertainment value, it’s hard to knock that, although it might not be the most piercing subject for documentary filmmaking.

Brown is actually picking up where his father, Bruce, left off. Bruce Brown directed “The Endless Summer” in 1966, and then the sequel in 1994; his son wanted to update the world on the state of surfing.

Travel the world
And so “Step Into Liquid” crisscrosses the globe, giving most of us who won’t ever stand atop a surfboard for even a millisecond a vicarious journey into the roiling sea.

We go to Tahiti, to see the hottest women surfers; to western Australia, to look at young Taj Burrow, considered by some to be the future of the sport; to the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, home of the giant waves; to Costa Rica; to Easter Island.

And then there’s Sheboygan, Wis., where some less-than-buff surfers have the time of their lives surfing in Lake Michigan. “The stoke is a global thing,” one of them explains.

These quirky scenes are the most fun. There’s another hilarious sequence that shows just how far some people will go to get that stoke: in a shipping canal in Galveston, Texas, determined surfers chase supertankers, riding their wakes.

Another enjoyable sequence shows an American father and son traveling to Vietnam, where the father served in the war, trying to surf in the very placid waters at Danang. They can’t, but they do find the Danang surfing club; they sign the guest list and find that they’re the 23rd and 24th visitors in the last 10 years.

Less successful is a section about a group of Irish-American brothers, the Malloys, who go back to the land of their heritage to surf in the cold Irish waters. The film shows them uniting Catholic and Protestant youths to learn to surf, and seems to say that all you need to solve this enduring conflict is a little surfin’ safari.

The best comes last. We follow a group of very brave surfers (and a brave film crew) who journey 100 miles off the California coast, after calculating that the waves there on a certain day will be historic in their height, a once-in-10-years experience. And they calculate correctly. It’s thrilling to see them venture out of their boat and glide down endless waves that experts later measure to be over 60 feet high.

With all this glory, one might forget that surfing can be supremely dangerous. The film wisely includes a scene of a paralyzed young man — who broke his neck while surfing — attempting a return to the water by surfing on his stomach, aided by friends. The smile on his face shows his heart — and it’s gimongous.