13 January 2013


Twelve Things about White Water Summer

12. Those who have seen White Water Summer may find the poster a bit misleading. This isn't a movie about Kevin Bacon's character and some sidekick canoeing through some dangerous rapids. In fact, although Bacon gets top billing and his name above the title (and his face above his name), he's only playing a supporting character. So there's a sense in which this is not a good poster for the movie.

And there's another sense in which it's the perfect one.

11. The real main character is the other guy in the canoe, who is played by Sean "Goonies never say die!" Astin. I'm saying that just to be objective, though. For me, the true draw was Jonathan Ward, formerly of the sitcom Charles in Charge. (You caught the Friday night live blog, right?) I will watch anything he has worked on.

10. Astin plays Alan, an awkward, nerdy boy whose parents sign him up for a wilderness survival course run by Bacon's character Vic. It involves hiking, camping, mountain climbing, white water canoeing, and living off the land with three other boys. Alan is not happy about it--and he is extra wary about Vic. As he should be!

That's easy for me to say, though. From my vantage point, watching the story unfold, it was clear that Vic fit the profile of a modern narcissist.

The narcissist believes he is the main character in his own movie. Everyone else has a supporting role--everyone around him becomes a "type." You know how in every romantic comedy, there's always the funny friend who helps the main character figure out her relationship? In the movie, her whole existence is to be there fore the main character. But in real life, that funny friend has her own life; she might even be the main character in her own movie, right? Well the narcissist wouldn't be able to grasp that. Her friends are always supporting characters, that can be called at any hour of the night, that will always be interested in what she is wearing, or what she did. That funny friend isn't just being kind, she doesn't just want to help--she's personally interested in the narcissist's life. Of course she is . . .
Words by The Last Psychiatrist; emphasis mine.
Now look at the poster again.

9. But let's not give Alan's BS detectors too much credit yet. His first "proof" that Vic might not be the best wilderness guide is Vic's preferring to walk through town lugging his gear rather than take a taxi. Come on, kid! It makes sense that an outdoorsy guy would enjoy the exercise. Alan is just being a younger version of Holden Caulfield, who--let's face it--would have probably found Bl. Teresa of Calcutta phoney.

8. The first real hint that something may be wrong comes during the trip, when Alan does something he shouldn't have--while neglecting something he was sent to do--and Vic makes a dramatic, carefully staged scene to address it. Alan is right to wonder why Vic couldn't have just told him what the rule is. Why the huge show in front of the other boys?

We're supposed to get another clue when Vic picks Alan for the canoe. (The other kids have to walk along the riverbank to get to the next campsite.) I say that because when they finally reach dry land, Alan accuses Vic of trying to scare him (and implying that Vic succeeded?). But that doesn't come through in the acting or in the way the sequence down the rapids was shot. If Alan hadn't had that line, the scene would have been a total waste. Nevertheless, since we don't see what he sees, he just sounds whiny again.

7. So let's look at the other situations now. (Say what else you like about it, but White Water Summer is a decently structured story.)

That's a drop of 185 feet.
And those are probably stunt doubles.

Alan is so nervous about crossing the bridge that he forgets to bring the poles for one of the tents. Vic makes him go back for them, and Alan slips and nearly falls off the bridge before he is even halfway back. (I was probably the only one who noticed that that was when he lost his glasses.) So he waits a while, then goes back to camp and lies about looking everywhere for the tent poles and not finding them . . . which is when Vic tosses the tent poles down in front of him and reveals that he had seen the whole thing.

I won't pick this apart yet. I'll just ask you: In Vic's place, what would you have done?

6. Now, the other boys don't have a similar problem with Vic. Chris, the oldest, probably wants to be exactly like Vic when he grows up. Mitch, the closest in age to Alan, is content to go with the flow, although it probably wasn't his idea to take the trip either. And George is so happy to be doing something manly for the summer that he brings a lads' mag with him for good measure.

From Left to Right:
The Wonderful Ward as Mitch, K.C. Martel as George, Matt Adler as Chris, Astin as Alan

I really wish that White Water Summer were more of an ensemble movie. All the boys have distinct personalities and arcs worth developing.

Well, one of them gets a special "moment" when Vic pulls a stunt that they did not at all expect (but which their parents were probably informed was in the itinerary), and without giving too much more away, let's just say they don't really have hard feelings about it. Well, except Alan.

5. If you were paying attention at the start of the movie, when Vic gives his presentation to Alan's parents, then you know that Vic packages his survival course as a way to make men out of boys. And it's true that young men have been testing themselves against nature for millennia--something you just can't do in the city or suburbs. Now, a week or two in the woods with cool gear from The North Face and an itinerary full of pre-selected challenges is about as real as Man vs. Wild turned out to be; but surely you can see why the boys who get to do all that "extreme" stuff would happily play along and end up getting something out of it at the end.

So the problem isn't that it's all staged; the problem is that it's a stage for Vic's story.

4. This is why Vic insists that everything be done in a certain way--specifically, the way he teaches the boys it should be done. The role he has written for himself is that of knowledgeable, experienced teacher, with the boys as his supporting cast of students dependent on him for all survival training. So when one of them (Guess who!) solves a problem using a method different from the one Vic has made the other boys practice all day, and has demonstrably more success with his technique, Vic sees that as a reason to discipline him.

Remember that the boy does nothing wrong. His actions just have the secondary effect of threatening Vic's role in the story. And Vic just can't have that. It's personal, you see.

3. But until pretty late in the movie, only Alan sees. Which is why, right before Vic has them do their most dangerous challenge yet, he whispers to Mitch, "I'm afraid Vic's going to hurt me."

When you're afraid that your guide may hurt you just to prove a point, in a setting where one careless move may mean death or permanent disability, then you'd better hope you're just paranoid because the alternative is worse.

2. Speaking of worse alternatives, there's the other White Water Summer poster.

This time, the awful part is not that it misrepresents the movie, but that it gets it right. You see, the story is told in flashback by an older, more sarcastic Alan, who is kind of ripping off riffing off Stand by Me. In those framing scenes, he is dressed pretty much the way he is in that poster . . . and practically pleading to be left on the cutting room floor. His flippant tone, his stupid designer chair in the middle of nowhere, his use of sheep (Don't ask) . . . They not only lack the honest, straightforward emotions of the wilderness scenes, but they also insult them.

Alan gets something out of that adventure, too, you know--and does it against the odds. Don't belittle it. Celebrate it.

1. A final note . . . As much I love 80s Rock and New Wave, the "moody badass" mix of The Cult, Cutting Crew, Journey, and Mark Boals (among others) doesn't serve this movie at all. A more thoughtful score would have raised the artistry by a whole notch. Maybe two. The cheese was nice, though--but of course I'd say that.

Image Sources: a) White Water Summer poster, b) Rope bridge, c) Cast and camp, d) White Water Summer alternative poster


happyheim said...

At first glance I thought the movie might be the one with Meryl Streep - it also involves the wilderness, white water and Kevin Bacon being evil! So I watched the trailer for White Water Summer and KB actually doesn't seem so evil. May look for a copy of this :)

Enbrethiliel said...


I know which one you mean! The River Wild came later, though, and it's much darker than this one. I won't say more about Bacon's character until you get a chance to see this, though!

About the White Water Summer trailer, however . . . my issues with it are similar to my issues with the posters. I think people who watch the movie knowing nothing but what these promo pieces have led them to think will be quite surprised!