Blue Crush is one piece of cinematic surf-sploitation that doesn’t skimp on the surf or the -sploitation. Its dramatic surf footage is matched only by director John Stockwell’s determination to pursue as much T and A as possible without depicting any actual T or A. But before Blue Crush sinks beneath the whitewash of the summer movie season, it’s worth noting that the film, which follows the exploits of women who ride the big swells of Oahu’s North Shore, is about more than cinematographer David Hennings’ determination to shove his camera into every pipe, tube, and curl in sight. In fact, Blue Crush is a sharp depiction—both in its details and its symbolism—of life in Hawaii.
Ever since the gods cracked Greg Brady’s head on a reef after he purloined a tiki doll, Hawaii has been portrayed as a place where real life, even when fraught with hardship, exists on an exotically rarified plane. To cite one particularly weird recent example, Disney’s animated film Lilo & Stitch concerns a young Hawaiian girl in a parentless household who mistakes a space alien for a pet dog. Even Susan Orlean, whose 1998 magazine article “The Maui Surfer Girls” served as the basis for Blue Crush, admitted how hard it was to see behind her subjects’ tropical sugar rush. “When I said a Hana girl could have a pure surfing adolescence,” she wrote, “I knew it was part daydream, because no matter how sweet the position of a beautiful, groovy Hawaiian teenager might be in the world of perceptions, the mean measures of the human world don’t ever go away.”
It’s not surprising that even as keen an observer as Orlean would have trouble seeing Hawaii for what it is: a state with almost twice the average household income of West Virginia, but about the same percentage of people living below the poverty line, and a cost of living almost 40 percent above the national average. This is the Hawaii that Blue Crush depicts. Instead of Orlean’s carefree subjects, the film’s screenplay, by Stockwell and Lizzy Weiss, features characters for whom life in Hawaii is a daily struggle. Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth) lives in a ramshackle house near the beautiful beach, with her two surfer girlfriends and her 12-year-old sister, who she’s raised since their mother fled to the mainland with a boyfriend. There’s a local term for this sort of arrangement: “ohana housing,” after the Hawaiian word for family and the Hawaiian practice of maintaining cohesion even when the immediate family is disrupted.
In Southern California, even avowed Hollywood liberals like David Geffen have recently tried to flout laws guaranteeing public access to all beaches. In Hawaii, public access is sacrosanct (only beach property owned by the military is restricted), but that sense of openness can politicize beach access as well. The local surfers in Blue Crush predictably resent Anne Marie for bringing a haole (white person) to their secret beach, but what rings true about the scene is that Anne Marie is a haole herself. Racial politics in Hawaii can be hard for outsiders to parse because rather than break down on strict racial lines, they’re usually more about “outsiders” (haole literally means “stranger”) versus “locals.” Anne Marie has proved herself to be local, a subtle distinction that Blue Crush gets right.
Tourism is so vital to the state’s economy that there’s a pervasive feeling in Hawaii that everyone’s livelihood depends on it. Anne Marie and her friends all work on the lowest rung of the tourist industry, as maids in the same luxury hotel. Anne Marie is fired for staging a small class revolt, confronting a visiting NFL player about the disgusting state of his room. She panics at the prospect of finding another job (unemployment in Hawaii among people ages 20 to 24 is almost 9 percent), until she meets another vacationing football player, Matt (Matthew Davis), a star quarterback who offers to pay her an exorbitant amount of money for surfing lessons. Anne Marie reluctantly agrees to Matt’s arrangement when she realizes she has to make rent. Besides, it’s only temporary: She hopes to do well enough at the meet to be asked to join a surfwear company’s “team,” meaning she’ll be paid a fortune to use the company’s products.
Here’s where things get allegorical. In ‘80s teen movies like Better Off Dead, the central conflict is resolved by a climactic athletic contest between a protagonist and his Nazi-jock nemesis. In Blue Crush, the jock is the benefactor and the movie-ending competition is almost an afterthought—Anne Marie’s opponent even helps her catch a wave. The real conflict is how Anne Marie will handle the sale of her own body. By sleeping with Matt, is she prostituting herself? Will selling herself to the surf team allow her to retain more autonomy? All Anne Marie wants to do is use the talents that nature gave her (few people can handle 30-foot waves) to further her lot in life. But to do that, she has to put herself in a position where her body is literally a valuable commodity.
The classic surf movie is still The Endless Summer, the 1966 documentary about two beach bums combing the globe for the perfect wave in a world where the only apparent difference between Senegal and New Zealand is the size of the sets. That’s why Blue Crush makes surfing feel like real life. The real problem with most portrayals of Hawaii isn’t that they portray a paradise that doesn’t exist—it’s that they don’t consider that paradise does exist as a condition maintained by residents out of necessity. Hawaii is a factory town where the local industry is the people themselves. The choice Blue Crush offers Anne Marie isn’t whether to sell herself out, it’s how.