'Heavy Water': Film Review

Brian Bielmann
For surf-obsessives only.
6/13/2019

Michael Oblowitz chronicles the career of Nathan Fletcher, a surf-dynasty heir who longs to push the sport forward.

Less audience-embracing than most surf documentaries that make it to the big screen, Michael Oblowitz's Heavy Water will play best to those familiar with its cast of characters — from contemporary stars like the late Andy Irons all the way back to the pioneers who lived on Oahu in the 1940s. Subject Nathan Fletcher's grandfather Walter Hoffman belonged to the latter group, and sired a dynasty of celebrated surfers. In its insidery way, Heavy Water shows how Fletcher has tried to add new milestones to that legacy, risking his life as he does it.

Raised in a family of surfers, Nathan had some of his thunder stolen by his older brother Christian, a pioneer in bringing skateboarding-inspired moves to wave-riding. The film downplays this, instead emphasizing Nathan's friendship with Jay Adams, an influential skateboarder (see Dogtown and Z-Boys) who also surfed, zipping up out of waves to pivot in the air.

Nathan recalls how Adams and others brought punk attitude to a sport known for feel-good vibes. He has barely started setting the scene when he concludes, "At a certain point, everybody just went too far, so they went to jail." That comes out of nowhere, and is immediately dropped, allowing us to assume people were jailed for petty drug violations. (In fact, Adams served six months for felony assault after taunting a gay couple in 1982.)

Storytelling is sketchy like this through most of the doc. During a period when Fletcher abandoned his real-world responsibilities to live in a van as a pro surfer, he remembers, "I came up with all these robots...," but the movie doesn't care what he means by that. Nor does it care if newbies understand how surfboard design affects movement in the water: In a long sequence, we hear from a designer Fletcher worked with, who describes how he extended here, shaved there, and thickened someplace else. Another film might plug in a bit of animation to explain the physics of these innovations; here, we're expected to understand.

The doc is more thorough in describing some of the dangers of surfing in certain famous spots, and it uses the deaths of two of Fletcher's surfing friends to mark a dramatic turning point: After he has an especially successful session in the waves, Fletcher claims there was a "karmic connection" between their sacrifice and his good day.

Heavy Water's final quarter-hour chronicles the buildup to a stunt Fletcher sees as his shot at immortality: the "Acid Drop," in which he (or his sponsor) hires a helicopter to drop him on top of a massive wave. The logistics of all this suggests great drama, but — on the screen, at least — the actual event underwhelms.

Production companies: Minus Zero Films, All Edge Entertainment, Red Bull Media House
Distributor: Fathom Events
Director-screenwriter: Michael Oblowitz
Producers: Michael Oblowitz, Carter Slade, Douglas Kaplan
Executive producers: Patrick DePeters, Matthew Helderman, Luke Dylan Taylor
Directors of photography: Brendon O'Neal, Michael Oblowitz, Orson Oblowitz
Editor: Carter Slade
Composers: Peter DiStefano, Paul Fuller

84 minutes