Looking Back: North Shore (1987)

I recently took an unofficial poll and asked my surfer buddies what their favorite surfing movie is. Before they answered, I would quickly add, “-not a documentary, but the best fictional movie ever made about the sport.” Suddenly, they’d get really quiet, think for a moment, then quickly say, “North Shore.” That was the most frequent answer I’d hear. Sure, there were a few whose answers were “Big Wednesday,” “Soul Surfer” and “Point Break” (all great picks, by the way). Yet, the movie that almost all of my board-waxing, wave-shredding friends picked was “North Shore,” by a very large margin. In 2011, when I interviewed Bethany Hamilton for Maui Time Weekly, she also named “North Shore” as her favorite surfing movie. What is it about “North Shore,” now thirty years old, that gives it the Hang Ten edge over the likes of Bodhi and Johnny Utah?

The simple fact is that director William Phelps’ 1987 cult classic, which flopped in theaters, is a campy but totally engaging surfer drama. The surfing scenes really shred and having surf luminaries like Gerry Lopez and Laird Hamilton in the cast gives it credibility. Not as credible is the story, in which the Arizona Wave Pool Champion (yes, you read that right- let it sit in for a second) moves to Oahu to become a big wave surfer. Matt Adler plays Rick Kane, the fresh-off-the-plane mainlander whose dude-speak and naiveté get him in immediate trouble with the tough locals (led by Lopez, bringing a lot to a clichéd role).

Rick gradually learns to surf and shares a secret romance with Kiani (played by MTV personality Nia Peebles). Providing Rick with life lessons and profound surfer instruction is his wise mentor Chandler, played with real gravitas by Gregory Harrison. There’s also Turtle, the local board shaper, played by John Philbin, in a fan favorite performance full of quotable throwaway lines.

While Adler is just okay in the lead, Harrison and Lopez have a magnetism that holds the screen and carries this a lot farther than expected. Philbin’s zonked-out performance always garners a laugh, which is the best thing about it. Turtle has no dramatic arch and Philbin is all over the place with the character but Turtle is a real kick. So is Hamilton’s pouty villain (it’s worth noting that, decades later, Hamilton would prove to be a solid character actor in “The Descendants”). Peebles is playing a dusty stereotype but she’s lovely in the role, which is all the movie requires of her.

To date, this is the only non-documentary helmed by Phelps, who keeps the story bubbling along and captures some gorgeous wave footage. The co-writer and producer is Randal Kleiser, the director of “Grease” and “Flight of the Navigator” (where Adler played the older brother of the abducted protagonist). This often plays like the kind of movie “Grease” parodies in its opening scene, as the haole boy/local girl romance clichés, the angry Hui and the inevitable big showdown climax all feel like leftovers from Frankie and Annette vehicles.

“North Shore” is a uniquely 80’s New Wave surf movie, with great soundtrack cuts (particularly Pseudo Echo’s take on “Funky Town” and a great, early Chris Issak tune called “Blue Hotel). There’s also lots of MTV-ready fashion choices, lots of faux-pidgin English, some actual Pidgin English and surfer vernacular that almost sounds authentic because its uttered by Turtle. Just try keeping count every time Turtle calls Rick a “Barney.” I always lose count.

This is yet another one of those tourist fantasies about the white kid who comes to Hawaii, shakes up the locals, wins over everybody and walks away the big champ in the end. To cut the movie a break, the Chandler/Rick soul surfer lessons are compelling, making this actually more of a sand n’ sunburn take on “The Karate Kid” than a male variation on “Gidget.” The local Hui is essentially this movie’s Cobra Kai, Kiani is the Ally equivalent and the big tournament at the end determines who is the most honorable.

This is a definitive 80’s drive-in movie, a small but thoroughly entertaining depiction of the communities and values that surfing creates. “Noerth Shore” may reflect the kitschiest aspects of its decades but, as an example of its genre, it’s the one to beat. Just ask Bethany Hamilton.

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