Dude, real surfers don't say "dude."
That may be the most profound lesson of "Step Into Liquid," a documentary that sets out to deconstruct surfing stereotypes even as it seeks to find transcendent, even mystical meaning in an already myth-laden sport.
Using breathtaking cinematography to put viewers inside the waves, tubes, pipelines and barrels that define the surfer's turquoise universe, "Step Into Liquid" is a ravishing, often entrancing paean to a pastime that has hooked more than its share of hard-core addicts. And because it gets so close to the real thing, the film does a good job of letting even the most hopelessly landlocked viewers experience vicariously the unique allure and adrenaline rush of being one with a surging 60-foot wall of water.
"Step Into Liquid" was written, directed and edited by Dana Brown, the son of Bruce Brown, who made "The Endless Summer" in 1966 and its sequel, "The Endless Summer II," in 1994. Those films are considered the gold standard of surf movies, largely because they dispensed with Gidget-and-Beach-Boys frippery and concentrated on good surfing. Dana made "Step Into Liquid" in order to catch up with a sport that was a mere novelty when his father started but has become a multibillion-dollar industry, as well as a part of the recent trend toward "X-treme" sports that appeal to the skateboard-snowboard-motocross generation.
Although he pays homage to the stars of his dad's movies -- Robert August and Robert "Wingnut" Weaver -- when he visits a team of old-timers surfing in Costa Rica, for the most part Brown focuses on the current generation of surfers, who are taking the sport as far as it can go, physically and creatively.
Thus viewers meet Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, Maui-based surfers who innovated "tow-in" surfing (whereby surfers are towed into otherwise unapproachable waves on a Jet Ski) and are now experimenting with hydrofoils on the bottom of their boards; Taj Burrow, an Australian wunderkind whose grace and athleticism are hailed as the next wave of competitive surfing; and Keala Kennelly, Rochelle Ballard and Layne Beachley, who have overcome condescension and sexism to win respect for women's surfing. Legends like Kelly Slater, Gerry Lopez and the Santa Cruz-based Mavericks are on hand as well, the latter traveling 100 miles off the coast of San Diego to dominate enormous open-sea swells that occur only once every 10 years.
That sequence serves as an exhilarating climax to "Step Into Liquid," which isn't a fully realized narrative as much as a series of vignettes, a few so compelling that they deserve a feature film all their own. There are the pudgy, pasty guys in Sheboygan, Wis., who faithfully surf the brown foam of Lake Michigan every chance they get, and the intrepid bunch of Texans who have perfected the art of surfing the two- and three-mile wakes of oil supertankers wending their way from Galveston to Houston. Or Dale Webster, who for the past 30 years has surfed every single day (the film catches up with him on Day 10,407). In a film that sometimes awkwardly tries to shoehorn spiritual and even political meaning into its subject, these simple stories are the most eloquent testimony to the sacred pact between surfers and the sea.
Like his father, Brown talks too much in "Step Into Liquid," and once in a while he succumbs to his dad's penchant for patronizing attempts at humor ("Being a communist country, Vietnam has millions of laws, except on the road."). But it's easy to tune him out and revel in his fabulous locations (including Ireland, Tahiti and Chile), their poetic beauty and the balletic grace of the athletes for whom surfing is less a sport than a pilgrimage.
If "Step Into Liquid" occasionally overstates that case, or makes it too repetitively, it still manages to convey, with unprecedented proximity and visual detail, surfing's transcendent appeal. Whether they surf or not, viewers will leave the theater feeling considerably stoked. And dude, surfers do say "stoked."
Step Into Liquid (88 minutes, at Landmark Bethesda Row) is unrated.