White Water Summer (1987)

12 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review “White Water Summer,” I want to say something. When I was a young teenager, and I rented this from a local video store, I fell in love with it. I felt like I just had to watch it again, rent it again, and soon enough I bought it on DVD. And yet it’s one of those cases that really get to you when you look back on it, especially for a review, because this is one of those “childhood faves” that just don’t hold up as well as you liked it to be.

I realize now that when I was a kid, I mostly liked the soundtrack. It’s a sad thing to admit, but while the movie itself is watchable and mostly even memorable, it’s the soundtrack that always stood out. But mainly, that was because there are several montage sequences in which a different hit from the ‘80s is playing over the action. What have we got? We’ve got “Life in a Dangerous Time,” by Cutting Crew. We’ve got “On the Western Skyline,” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. We’ve got “Aphrodisiac Jacket,” by The Cult. And I even stayed during the end credits because of “Be Good to Yourself,” by Journey (and this was my introduction to the band, and hence my introduction to “Don’t Stop Believin’”). Each of these songs stays fresh in my mind because of this movie. I admit, I even hum “On the Western Skyline” to myself when I think no one’s listening.

Now on to the movie, “White Water Summer.” How does it hold up? Not as well as I would like it to be. The film is nicely-shot (the director of photography was John Alcott, who previously worked on several Stanley Kubrick films), and that’s possibly a given considering the film mostly takes place in the great outdoors and the essence must be captured. And there are some genuinely tense moments that come with the characters and the environment they’ve put themselves into. Other than that, “White Water Summer” is somewhat unfocused, even annoying at times, and ultimately put on autopilot for the climax (or rather, anti-climax).

“White Water Summer” stars Kevin Bacon as Vic, a wilderness guide who leads a group of teenage boys on a month-long trek in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. The only boy who isn’t full on-board is city-boy Alan (Sean Astin). He’s annoyed by Vic’s life lessons, and his defiance constantly has him and Vic butting heads with each other. The main problem that ensues is that Alan’s insolence only makes Vic’s aggressive lessons even more aggressive, and thus Alan is a target in extreme obstacles.

“White Water Summer” wants to be a film about taking time from your normal life and embrace the beauty in the isolation nature has to offer. After seeing this movie, I’m not sure anyone would want to go camping again. There are many hazardous obstacles that the boys and their guide come across and barely survive. One is a dangerous rope bridge over a 200-ft. gorge—the ropes they hang on to seem sturdy enough, but the bridge is mainly just a series of planks nailed onto one another. With such a thin footing, they have to cross with one foot directly in front of the other and never let go of the ropes. This is part of the safely-guided nature trail the kids signed up for?!

To be fair, that sequence is quite a nail biter. It’s nicely shot and really gives you a sense of vertigo. As a person who’s terrified of heights, I found this to be an effective sequence. And I really winced when the inevitable close-call (in that Alan nearly falls off the damn thing) happened.

There’s another sequence in which Vic takes the boys on a rough climb on a mountain called Devil’s Tooth. When they run out of rock, they are forced to pendulum across to the nearest surface rock. This is also well-shot and I was fooled into thinking that the real actors pulled off this stunt, and not stunt doubles. It seems fun, because they think it’s fun…everyone except Alan, who unfortunately slips and hangs on for dear life while he dangles on the edge of a rock face.

It’s here that the movie turns Vic into a villain, and the plot turns from a coming-of-age wilderness story into a standard rescue story. Aside from a little whitewater rafting that serves as the film’s climax (and it’s one painfully-dull sequence), I don’t think any of the boys have learned much about the wilderness, except that it’s best to stay within the confines of your home in the suburbs or the city. OK, you could argue that Vic learns more about patience when dealing with a city kid who has no interest in the wild life. But what about Alan? He states in a painfully-forced (and incredibly obnoxious) cutaway narration (in which Astin is a couple years older) how much he hates camping until we just want to deck him, especially because we’ve already seen the point he was trying to make.

The outcome of the climax is painful. It’s too coincidental, comes right out of nowhere, and the movie stops rather than end properly. And just as a joke, they show end credits before older Alan interrupts by saying, “You hear music, you see credits, you think it’s over?” I was hoping.

What I get out of “White Water Summer” now is beautiful photography, good-enough acting from Kevin Bacon, Sean Astin, and the other three young actors (Jonathan Ward, Matt Adler, K.C. Martel), and a kick-ass ‘80s soundtrack. But when you get down to it, the movie never comes to a coherent point. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, and what it is is adequate at best.

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