It took a few months, but summer's finally here.
"Blue Crush," a big, sexy, sun-splashed thrill ride, is what a summer movie ought to be: not totally mindless, but more interested in jangling your nerves than engaging your brain. Fortunately, the man at the helm of this Gidget-Goes-Riot-Grrrrl piece of escapism is John Stockwell, who is proving to be quite a dab hand at giving classic 1950s and '60s genres the hip, authentic spin of contemporary youth culture. Spectacularly filmed, well acted and snappily edited, "Blue Crush" exemplifies Hollywood at its best and most brazen: It's honest, even occasionally elegant, American pulp.
The action centers on Anne Marie Chadwick (Kate Bosworth), a champion surfer who went into semiretirement after nearly drowning three years ago. Abandoned by her mother, Anne Marie is rearing her kid sister (Mika Boorem) in a decrepit surf shack on a Hawaii beach; she lives and works with her best friends, Eden and Lena (Michelle Rodriguez and Sanoe Lake), as a maid at a nearby hotel. More than anything, Anne Marie wants to make enough money to give herself and her sister some security: Her chance is coming up with the Pipe Masters, a surfing contest in which she's a wild-card competitor against the planet's best female surfers. If she wins, she could reap untold rewards in endorsements and other perks of the surfing circuit. If she loses, she could die.
Even though it purports to resuscitate the long-departed beach-blanket movies of the 1960s, "Blue Crush" takes most of its narrative arc from "Rocky" and its female counterpart, "Flashdance." The plot, including a Cinderella-esque love story, won't come as a surprise to viewers. But within these formulaic parameters, director and co-writer Stockwell has created an entirely believable world and has elicited some terrific, genuine performances from his unknown stars. Bosworth is especially good as a young woman struggling to know her own worth, and Rodriguez delivers a funny, macha portrayal in the Burgess Meredith role (which should be the last time you'll see those two names mentioned in the same breath). Stockwell has enlisted a big supporting cast of real-life champion surfers, including Sanoe Lake, who makes an impressive film debut; Keala Kennelly, Kate Skarratt, Rochelle Ballard and Layne Beachley are also on hand for the final showdown, as thrilling a sequence as has been seen on screen this year.
As fine as the lead players are in "Blue Crush," and as much fun as it is to watch tawny, lithe young men and women dance and leap against glistening turquoise water, the real stars of the movie are the waves themselves. Stockwell has made the ocean another character in "Blue Crush," and a mercurial one, as capable of holding the surfers in a lingering embrace as it is of body-slamming them into oblivion. Like Bruce the Shark in "Jaws," the waves -- each with its own personality, each more potentially deadly than the last -- interrupt the fun and beauty with moments of sheer terror.
Camera operators Don King and Sonny Miller, with the assistance of bodyboarder Michael Stewart, have done a breathtaking job of filming under and over water, taking the camera into the curling waves and under the surface when they break. They've managed to immerse the audience in the physical experience of surfing, from the moments of quiet, almost spiritual beauty to its mortal dangers. (At some points in the film, the camerawork has been enhanced with digital visual effects.) The documentary "Endless Summer" and even the Keanu Reeves vehicle "Point Break" have been the most popular inside-surfing movies to date, but "Blue Crush" defines a new gold (or maybe golden tan) standard.
As in his first feature, the teen melodrama "crazy/beautiful," Stockwell has a good eye and ear for characters and their environments, and he is especially sympathetic with women characters. He's canny enough to acknowledge the commercial imperatives of physical beauty, fantasy and sexuality, but there's always a bit of grit under the surface gloss. In "Blue Crush" he strikes just enough of a balance between romance and realism that even at the film's most absurd moments (a scene in which Anne Marie swims into the ocean in a designer gown and diamond bracelet comes to mind) his characters manage to maintain their dignity. He's a refreshing presence in mainstream filmmaking, a director who exploits the cinema's most superficial, even decadent, pleasures without sacrificing intellectual honesty. What's so surprising about "Blue Crush" isn't its happy endings, but the fact that each one of them is earned.
Blue Crush (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, teen partying, language and a fight.