On a Wave and a Prayer

Blue Crush is a cool August date movie; Possession is less than nine-tenths of the book.

Kate Bosworth heads for the pipe in Blue Crush
Kate Bosworth heads for the pipe in Blue Crush 

My daughter’s baby sitter says her twentysomething pals have been readying themselves all summer for Blue Crush (Universal), the surfer chick flick. The posters went up in early June of three tough-looking bikini babes clutching their long boards, with blond Kate Bosworth in the center looking sultry and hard and a little bit spooked. The come-on is obvious; what’s surprising is that the movie does a respectable exploitation-picture job of reinterpreting the parameters of the Go-for-It genre for a generation of young women. As a problem drama, this is nothing you can’t see done with more wit and flair on television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But throw in bikinis and 30-foot electric-blue waves, and you’ve got yourself a cool night out after a long day of basting in the hot August sun.

Blue Crush opens with the voice of a little girl saying, “I’m gonna be the best surfer in the world” over images of giant Hawaiian waves they call double overhead. You pick up a lot of surf terminology from this movie. Before the credits roll, the now grown-up woman, Anne Marie (Bosworth), wakes up her beach-shack-mates, and when they say, “It’s too early,” she says, “It’s double overhead,” and they say, “Double overhead!?!” And they jump up and head for the beach, where the buff surfer-boys are saying, “You’re going out into double overhead? It’s heavy out there, it’s fierce.” And the girls gaze with religious awe on those great blue giants, and they steel themselves for the crush.

It’s a hazardous obsession. Three years before the action of the movie begins, Anne Marie got slammed into a reef while surfing in Oahu’s Pipe Masters competition. The “pipe” flattened Anne Marie; she nearly drowned; and in her dreams she relives that head-bashing over and over. In seven days she’ll take on the Pipe Masters again against the best female surfers in the world, with television and sponsors looking on—people who can save her from a life of dead-end chambermaid jobs and poverty. Does Anne Marie have it in her to conquer the blue crush, or will she fold under the crush of her own fear?

The resolution won’t surprise you, but the journey just might. Blue Crush isn’t tongue-in-cheek, like that cheerful cheerleader picture Bring It On (2000). Based on an Outside magazine article by Susan Orlean about a subculture of impoverished but obsessive female surfers, it’s full of earnest socioeconomic observations. But it doesn’t have that down-to-earth indie-movie virtuousness of Girlfight (2000). As directed by John Stockwell, who made the surprisingly decent Kirsten Dunst teenpic crazy/beautiful (2001), it’s a very odd combination of scrappy grit and studio flash; of feminist pep talk and rock ’n’ roll montage. It has fumbling-for-words dialogue shot with hand-held cameras; and it has amazingly kinetic bombardments of sound and color and roiling surf. “Blue Crush” is a fair description of how the movie operates: It batters you; it flips you end over end. It isn’t good, exactly; it’s thinly dramatized, the characters are bland and dinky, and it sticks too close to formula. But it’s vivid. And it may strike a chord with young women who long for a Go-for-It movie of their very own.

The Go-for-It picture means something different with male and female protagonists. It’s always about facing one’s greatest fears—the Pipe Masters or the flashdance or the eye of the tiger—but for men it’s often a matter of measuring up to your Old Man’s expectations and beating the pants off your sneering opponent. The women’s Go-for-It picture says your dad’s expectations are irrelevant. Competition is beside the point: It’s not about vanquishing your opponent, it’s about finding the power within yourself and thereby plugging into a sort of feminine oversoul. And it’s about transmitting that power to other women, either directly or by example.

That might sound New Agey, but surfing pictures are nothing if not transcendental, and the movie isn’t subtle in the choices it lays out. Anne Marie’s dad is gone, and her mother has abandoned the family for some sort of quasi-prostitution gig in Vegas. She lives with her surfer pals—the possessive Eden, played by Michelle Rodriguez from Girlfight; Lena, played by Sanoe Lake; and her kid sister (Mika Boorem), who’s given to cutting school and drinking with Oahu locals. The turning point comes when a famous quarterback (Matthew Davis) spies Anne Marie in her cute little maid’s outfit at a resort hotel. To the horror of Eden, who functions as Anne Marie’s principal trainer, the quarterback buys her sexy dresses and all the room service she wants; and Anne Marie begins to dig the life of a pampered girlfriend. The conflict is stark: Will Anne Marie meet her destiny in the Tube Masters, or will she become, in effect, a tube mistress, the quarterback’s trophy squeeze—what the movie calls a pro ho?

This dilemma is only possible when you cast a cover-girl blonde as your athlete heroine, but it does have some larger resonance; it stands for the ways in which most women in this culture, like it or not, have to resolve their feelings about being saved by a Prince Charming. I wish I could tell you the movie explores the ramifications of this stubborn romantic fantasy in a brave or even interesting way. But it ducks the whole issue, because the dreamboat quarterback turns out to have been raised in a house full of women: He poses as a lover but he acts like the world’s most supportive brother. And before you know it, everyone in the movie is family, even Anne Marie’s chief opponent, who loses her threatening aspect and plays big sister in the surf. In the end it’s Anne Marie against The Wave, with the people on shore holding their collective breath.

I can’t tell if Bosworth is much of an actress—she has an inexpressive voice, and she’s a little sullen. But she moves well enough that the switch to a surfer stand-in (Rochelle Ballard) isn’t obvious. And there’s something appealing about how closed-down she is: Real athletes aren’t drama queens. The smartest save themselves for the sport.

How’s the sport? Trippy. When it comes to athletics on film, I like directors who take a more fluid approach; I like single shots that go on and on instead of Cuisinart chop-chops with tacky slow motion and no sense of real bodies in real motion. I’d have liked Blue Crush better if just one surfboard ride had been left un-mucked with by MTV montage. But I think the technique can be justified—the smash-cut editing, the slow motion in moments of high tension, the almost-pixillated hurtle of the board through the surf. No film has ever brought you inside the wave the way this one does. The pipe is almost literally that: It’s when the crest of the wave curls over and makes a tunnel that’s always a second or two away from folding in on itself and whoever’s inside it; and the camera rockets through that spiral in a way that makes your stomach jitter. I’ve never surfed, but I did jump out of an airplane once (don’t ask me why), and I remember the way my senses went into an uproar when I leapt. That’s what these sequences feel like—a sensual uproar. They almost make this small, unresolved little movie feel mythic.

LaBute's Possession: surprisingly painless
LaBute’s Possession: surprisingly painless

Given that he’s unsuited by style, temperament, or worldview to adapting A.S. Byatt’s brainy rhapsody Possession, Neil LaBute has made a bearable film. I had visions of something arch and studied, but Possession (USA Films) is a wee, breezy thing with painterly cinematography (by Jean Yves Escoffier) and with actors who are mostly fun to watch. It sails by in 103 minutes and the clunky stuff isn’t painful, which makes a change from LaBute’s usual grueling studies in human callousness and depravity.

What the movie isn’t is an act of sympathetic imagination. The novel’s excesses seem a small price to pay for Byatt’s immersion in the creative lives of her four protagonists, two in the 19th century, two in the 20th. Her modern scholars, Maud and Roland, pore over the writing of two English poets, Ash and LaMott; and the more they learn of a hitherto undisclosed affair between the two, the more we see how each sublimates his or her longing in art—sometimes foolishly, sometimes gloriously. The resulting book manages to be both a satire and a celebration of art and criticism—not to mention a rattling good English love story in which all parties strive to be exquisitely defended.

For reasons known only to LaBute, the movie’s Roland is a scruffy American (Aaron Eckhart), which means the central conflict is now between unbridled Yank passion and starched English snobbery. It’s not a bad theme for comedy, but it’s extraneous; and when the let-it-all-hang-out American turns out to have issues with commitment, the drama becomes muddy. (So much of LaBute’s dramaturgy revolves around gross insensitivity; he must have needed his protagonist to be an outsider so that he could score cheap points off the other characters.) In the book, the passages in which Roland and Maud trade barbs and insights has a quality of stichomythia—that pingpong cadence that Shakespeare gave to lovers’ talk in the romantic comedies. The movie’s banter is earthbound and not so pleasurably silly, although Gwyneth Paltrow is amusing with her Sloane Square honk and with clipped declarations on the order of, “I suppose I could put up with you for one evening, couldn’t I?” As Ash and LaMott, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are handsome in their period dress (her flaming tresses upstage the dialogue), but without the other side of their characters—their creative lives—they seem dimmer than they ought to be, and posed. Possession is wanly self-possessed.