Monday, September 12, 2016

White Water Summer (1987)

My attraction to outdoor adventure films is in the scenery. The story plays second fiddle to the cinematography for me. Sure, I need a good story to anchor the film, lest I get bored halfway through, but I’m coming for the scenery. I take to it as a cinematic vacation, where I can be one with nature from the comfort of civilian life. It’s a cheat for sure, but I can’t always be out in the wilderness. Film acts as a welcome avatar.

Mind you, I’m not much of a camper. I enjoy going on hikes, but I’d prefer not to stay in a tent afterward, acting as a human burrito for wildlife. Add in years of growing up in fear of both a bear attack and/or a crazed serial killer on the loose and you’ve got a hesitation toward the camping lifestyle (think of the Jim Gaffigan camping bit and you’ve got my similar feelings). And yet, I’m fascinated by films dealing with camping and the wildlife. It’s so picturesque and comforting even in the face of danger!

I grew up similar to the protagonist in “White Water Summer,” Alan (Sean Astin). I was an introvert who would’ve been much happier spending my summer indoors than out (though I enjoyed the safety of my neighborhood once I moved out of the dangerous city). My parents tried to convince me to try camping and becoming a boy scout, but were never pushy when they noticed my hesitation. Alan’s parents, his father specifically, are the opposite: seeing the chance to spend a few weeks camping as a lesson in survival and growth. They’ve enlisted the aid of Vic (Kevin Bacon), a skilled survivalist, to take him into the wilderness and become one with nature.

The first half of the film is as expected. Vic is the polar opposite of Alan, a lover of the outdoors. The two share similarities, such as in their intelligence, but utilize their traits differently. Alan catches fish by crafting a makeshift trap out of supplies and natural resources; Vic does it the old-fashioned way, by hand, and scoffs at Alan for cheating. He punishes the poor boy on numerous occasions, forcing him to stay behind until a task is finished. He challenges his natural instincts such as in abandoning him to travel a rickety bridge over a hundred feet above water and sharp rocks and leaving him dangling atop a mountain. We can understand Vic’s reasoning, to teach the young teenager to survive, but also challenge his responsibility. Is it really sane for a man to leave a child hanging for his life (literally)? Think of the lawsuit and jail time he were to face had the children in his care were to perish?

Director Jeff Bleckner plays with that throughout, especially in the second half. He struggles in adapting the screenplay, written by Manya Starr & Ernest Kinoy, resulting in Vic’s abrasiveness coming across as sociopathic. There’s one instance where he nearly shoves a camper over the edge of a mountain after a verbal dispute. Considering the film’s overall pleasant tone, and the generally happy ending, this comes off as a conflict of interest. One I found somewhat amusing seeing as how the atmosphere was reminiscent of a campground slasher at times, made more palatable by the inclusion of “Friday the 13th” alum Kevin Bacon. I
didn’t expect it to nearly come to fruition in the final act.

It’s not that the sudden change in tone is a kneejerk reaction. Bleckner builds to it well, hinting at Vic’s questionable tactics. He’s never made out to be the bad guy, just a man with a firm belief in building a person up by challenging their senses. It’s no different than when someone tosses their child into the deep end to teach them how to swim. He’s always presiding over them, even when visibly absent, to ensure their safety if need be. The issue is in when it’s cranked up too much to service the drama, where we must suspend disbelief that the guide would allow his campers to catch pneumonia in a harrowing storm with no tent or, even worse, a wildlife attack.

Does Vic prove his point? Certainly, even if Alan’s cheesy narration (filmed two years later to give credence to his reminiscing) dilutes it. It’s just done so in such a heavy-handed way, with a fatal accident changing the course of direction, that it can cause friction. The connective tissue is there, as is the message, so it’s not a lost cause; just a shaky one, as rickety as the bridge Alan must cross.

I came for the scenery and “White Water Summer” didn’t disappoint in that front. The cinematography by the legendary John Alcott (one of his final films) is gorgeous and atmospheric! Starr & Kinoy’s script infuses the cinematography with a solid pillar. Bleckner keeps all of this in check with his direction, imbuing the film with the right amount of comradery, growth, and danger. It may be too heavy-handed at times, but it’s a pleasant trip nonetheless.

MVT: John Alcott’s cinematography. Sure, it’s the reason I was drawn to the film, but that’s not why it’s my MVT. That’d be because it lent much-needed atmosphere to the proceedings. The wilderness and, more importantly, camerawork, are just as much of a character as the campers are.

Make or Break: The rickety bridge sequence. It breaks up the soothing tone of the film, which at this point came packaged with numerous soft montages. It sets the stage for the forthcoming drama without going too over the top like some of the later predicaments.

Final Score: 7/10

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