Soup Dreams

Huntington Beach High surf-team documentary catches air

Like every other flick from the genre, Chasing the Dream packs jaw-dropping surfing footage over energizing rock music—as if it's required by law. Speaking of clichés, the documentary features unnecessary narration by Gary Busey, the requisite Kelly Slater appearance and home-tour scenes that even MTV's shameless Cribs would have left on the cutting-room floor. All of which makes sense when you discover the whole shebang is sponsored by Quiksilver, whose cold, hard cash could only help the overall quality of a production, but—let's face facts—action-sports-industry-sponsored pictures often have their souls sanded bare under high-gloss, corporate sheens.

And yet the undeniable soul of director Angelo Mei's film saves the day. Sure, a movie with such a strong local hook—one season with Huntington Beach High School's surf team—would pack them in at the upcoming Newport Beach Film Festival screening even it were crap, but Chasing the Dream can be pimped unashamedly because it'd be a damn-fine documentary no matter where it was set.

As Mei has said, it's not really a surf film. It's a coming-of-age tale that focuses mostly on eight of the 30 members of the Oilers' solid surf squad, whose athletic prowess is every bit as daunting as Mission Viejo High's football team, Mater Dei's basketball program or Long Beach Poly's track-and-field factory.

The story begins with Huntington Beach High's handsome, philosophical coach Andy Verdone cutting his team down from 100 aspirants. We see the surfing equivalent of "Hell Week," complete with pampered teens grumbling about doing push-ups in the sand when all they want to do is surf.

Verdone at times comes off like a borderline soul surfer—one who believes competition spoils the purity of the near-religious surfing experience. That is, Verdone seems that way until you see him barking at individual athletes or experiencing every high and low at meets.

Mei, who trained at the Art Institute of California/Los Angeles and has an extremely limited filmmaking résumé, received incredible access, and he responded splendidly by choosing worthy surfers to follow. There is the (possible) future superstar. There is the team-bus prankster. There is the transfer who is ultimately heartbroken by a season-ending injury. There is the underclass kid who barely makes the cut—and proves to be tough as nails. There's even an actual, teenage soul surfer who ultimately could give a shit about winning.

You may at first be turned off by the at-home footage because it's difficult to get all worked-up about the challenges team members face when you see the laps of luxury from which most of them sprang. Seriously, some of these kids would give the Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County cast a run for the shekels. But you quickly discover these Oilers must navigate around the same traps all kids face, including substance abuse, demanding curriculum and living up to their parents' great expectations.

Oh, the families depicted in the film are mostly great. Many of the fathers have strong surfing backgrounds. One mother reclining on the beach while her son plows through the waves remarks how she would never trade the hours she's spent sitting through her kid's practices with parents who schlep full minivans to AYSO and Little League fields. But Mei does follow one overbearing mom—yelling at (and living through) her boy during a contest—who would certainly find bleachers-full of soul mates at those fields. You have to wonder if she thought she was coming off well for the handheld camera.

As in other sports, the professional side of surfing is a big-money business, and Verdone, his athletes and their parents obviously view Huntington Beach High as the minor leagues. This is the warts-and-all theme that bubbles up throughout Mei's movie. He even cuts in the then-and-now story of a rising surf star whose career ended disastrously amid the worst trappings of fame. (Quiksilver deserves kudos for letting such a bleak cautionary tale remain in the picture.)

All the action builds to a once-in-a-lifetime (or two- or three-times-in-a-lifetime, depending on how often you make varsity) trip to Australia to compete against high schools there, live with families along the way and be surrounded by shapely Aussie girls turned on by those funny American accents. Some boys who made the travel squad were as young as 15 and had never been outside the States. I won't reveal how the pride of Surf City finished in Australia—where surfing is a national pastime. Let's just say our boys did better with the chicks.

Which brings up the greatest message I personally got from Chasing the Dream: Christ, almighty, what the hell was I doing playing baseball, football and basketball all those years?

CHASING THE DREAM AT REGENCY LIDO. SAT., APRIL 21, 10:30 A.M. $10.

 
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