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Sundance Film Review: ‘Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton’

Variety logo Variety 1/26/2017 Dennis Harvey
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Though as famous as any surfer living or dead, Laird Hamilton has never competed in that sport professionally — which he attributes to disinterest in “being judged,” but a longtime pal says is probably more because he “can’t stand losing.”

Those contrasting comments provide a rare moment of more penetrating insight in veteran documentarian Rory Kennedy’s “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.” This slick, entertaining portrait won’t provide many surprises for those who’ve followed the subject’s high-profile career — as pretty much anyone interested in surfing has — but should fascinate others for whom he’s a less familiar personality. And it almost goes without saying, but footage of his often-astounding wave-riding, which now stretches back nearly five decades, is golden whether you’ve seen its like before or not.

The film’s more or less chronological approach starts with his free-spirited late single mother Joann’s move to Hawaii in the mid-’60s. There, both she and little Laird took a shine to surfer/board maker Bill Hamilton, although getting the latter as a new dad did not prevent the child from becoming (as junior half-brother Lyon puts it) “100% disobedient.” Resulting discord at home and at school (where the siblings were bullied as minority whites) led Laird to find “equality in the ocean,” where he exhibited extraordinary athletic ability and seeming fearlessness from an early age.

Eventually dropping out, he drifted into modeling under the influence of longtime friend Buzzy Kerbox, who’d already discovered that a few hours’ posing paid for a lot of days on the water. But Hamilton wasn’t interested in pursuing that seriously, nor acting, though he did play the villain in cornball 1987 surf drama “North Shore” (and has done sporadic smaller roles and stunt work since).

Instead, he carved out a unique path innovating the sport outside the contest circuit, his affinity for big-wave surfing motivating a series of game-changing advances chronicled here in detail. Among them were the development of tow-in (usually via jet ski) and foilboard surfing, which enabled him to conquer seemingly “unridable” waves of stupendous size and risk. But these techniques have been controversial among surfing purists, while Hamilton’s willingness to maximize nearly every avenue of opportunity — he’s one of the most diversely self-branded athletes ever — has alienated some lesser-sung buddies who’ve shared in his achievements but not their rewards.

Though only 52, he’s already lived a life one suspects could fill more than one hefty volume of exhaustive biography. (And his exhaustively trained body has sustained more injuries than a dozen other athletes might hazard.) Even at two full hours, “Take Every Wave” must do a lot of condensing. Still, as ample and awesome as Hamilton’s exterior doings are, one gets something of a classic “authorized portrait” vibe here in that he’s not about to let us get too far into his head.

For the most part, conflicts of various types are mentioned but not probed (a first marriage barely rates even that), and the extent of his business empire, multimedia celebrity profile, and other factors are just glancingly noted to better preserve a “soul surfer” image. There’s some insight from wife of 20 years Gabrielle Reece, but she too is a major-league sports businesswoman with a brand to promote and protect.

If “Wave” ends up feeling just guardedly revealing on a personal level, there’s no quibbling with the exhilarating impact of the surfing footage here, culled from a variety of sources. Naturally, it includes the fabled “Strapped” crew’s experimental conquest of Maui’s Pe’ahi aka “Jaws” in the early ’90s, and Hamilton’s legendary drop into “the heaviest wave ever ridden” at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o in 2000.

Taking a break from her customary tough, frequently political themes (“Last Days in Vietnam,” “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” “Pandemic: Facing AIDS,” etc.), Kennedy revels in the fun and excitement of much of the material here, delivering a smoothly diverting package. In the tradition of more purely performance-focused surfing documentaries, Nathan Larson’s original score takes a backseat to a diverse mix tape of rock tracks by artists from the Ventures and Jack Nitzsche to the Pixies.

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