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Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton

TAKE EVERY WAVE: THE LIFE OF LAIRD HAMILTON

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rory Kennedy

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 9/29/17 (limited); 10/20/17 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 19, 2017

The line between dedication and addiction is a thin one, and from what we see and hear in Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, that line is even thinner for the surfer who's the subject of this involving documentary. As promised by the title, we get the life story of Laird Hamilton, who, according to the film's timeline, has only competed professionally one time, and that was simply so he could obtain a sponsorship. The company representatives stated that, if he finished in the top two for the trials of the competition, they'd sponsor him. Hamilton ended up topping the trials and taking first place in the contest. The man repeatedly says that he's not a fan of competition, but this brief episode suggests that he might not be completely honest with himself about that.

His whole life, in fact, seems to be competitive, although he's not competing against other surfers. From what we learn, it seems as if Hamilton is contending against a rough childhood, a feeling of being overlooked by the mainstream of the sport he loves, the forces of the ocean, and, ultimately, time. The film switches back and forth between his past, growing up on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, and his life between 2015 and 2016, living with his family in Malibu and returning to the island where he spent a good portion of his life, in order to rent the same home where he, his mother, his stepfather, and his half-brother lived.

He essentially grew up as an outcast, being one of the few white kids to attend school on the island, where he was constantly bullied, and living with a man who married Hamilton's mother when the stepfather was only 17. He wasn't ready to be father, the stepfather admits while being interviewed, and Hamilton and his younger brother tell stories of punishments that escalated from harsh scolding, to spanking, and, finally, to outright abuse. Hamilton recalls going to school and showing off the cuts and bruises he received from his stepfather's belt buckle. He laughs at it now, and one can't tell if it's because he came to terms with that abuse or because he has been so busy with surfing that it stopped being an issue a long time ago.

The surfing was an escape for a young Hamilton. He says that a few times, too, although we almost don't need him to say it directly. His passion for the sport, as well as the way he approaches it without any sense of needing the adulation of competition, proves that.

He only surfs big waves to prove to himself that he can. In dismissing the professional competitions, which focus on technique and fast maneuvering, he has dismissed the judgment of others for what he does. He does it only for himself. Given the opportunity to finally compete in a big-wave competition, he turns it down, because he and his team have found a secluded spot where the waves are huge. He has everything that he needs. A brief audio montage at the beginning of the film has people discussing him with words like "egomaniac," "radical," and "reckless." None of that seems to affect him, because he always has his mind on the next waves.

Director Rory Kennedy goes through his early life and his career. There's a place in Hamilton's timeline, when he decided to take on surfing as a career (after doing some masonry jobs and realizing that he couldn't live his life that way), that his career becomes his life. Even now, he trains when it isn't surf season, diving and rising in his pool with various weights held in various places on his body—in his hands and between his legs. At a certain point, surfing became his life. To tell the story of his life is to tell the stories of the big waves, the secret spots that no surfer had dared to attempt, the simple but innovative way that he and his select team revolutionized the way people surf, and his more recent attempts to change how people ride waves.

Kennedy tells this story with interviews—with Hamilton himself, his family, his friends, and his wife, professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, who understands her husband's passion but knows that he's capable of being a husband and a father, too—and an abundance of archival footage collected from throughout Hamilton's life. Everything, it seems, was recorded, since so much of what Hamilton and his team did was supposed to be a secret. Hamilton and his team developed a technique to ride a surf break that they dubbed "Jaws," using a boat and, later, a jet ski to tow a surfer into massive waves that were too far from shore to approach and ride safely. Now, Hamilton is working on a perfecting a surfboard with a hydrofoil attached to it, allowing a surfer to ride above the water.

He's also dealing with the limitations of his body. The arch of his left foot has fused from so many breaks, and one of his toes is essentially useless. His hip is bad, resulting in him hobbling around on land. In the water, though, none of that seems to matter. At some point, his body will fail his endeavors, but Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton makes us wonder if he'll figure out a way around that inevitability, too. At that point, we might learn if it's dedication or addiction.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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