Fiberglass Underdogs: North Shore


The creators of the 1987 cult surf adventure, North Shore, deserve a lot of credit. Granted, it manages to pack several tired cliches of the sports movie genre into the span of 96 minutes (the triumph of the underdog, the Romeo and Juliet-inspired romance, and the preserved spirituality of a sport that’s become a billion-dollar industry), but the filmmakers managed to successfully avoid the heavy Hollywood hand that, for example, movies like Thrashin’ and Under the Boardwalk suffered from. Having come out around the same time as North Shore, they were skate and surf movies that were obviously steered by studio executives and filmmakers who had no real concept of the then-modern teenager, nor their sport, resulting in movies that made pure caricatures of both as though the research was limited to browsing pictures in top-shelf sports magazines and scanning slang dictionaries.

North Shore, on the other hand, albeit in dated fashion, still managed to maintain a certain respectability. The movie introduced relatively unknown actors (many of whom could surf, which eliminated the need for too many stunt doubles). Major supporting roles were filled by some of the best professional surfers of the decade like big wave superstar Laird Hamilton, Gerry Lopez, and Mark Occhilupo, while guys like Shaun Thompson, Corky Carroll, and the late Mark Foo showed up in cameos. There was nothing particularly inaccessibly luxurious about the settings or the characters. They came from a regular towns and modest homes. And most importantly, the filmmakers remembered to make surfing the top priority, emphasizing this with some gorgeous 35 mm surfing footage for a documentary effect which would later be blatantly duplicated in director John Stockwell’s mediocre surfer girl drama, Blue Crush. When the movie surfaced on cable movie channels in the past, it had sometimes been accompanied by a short behind-the-scenes commentary with director William Phelps (who co-wrote North Shore with Randal Kleiser and Tim McCanlies), and it focused primarily on the cinematography, which may seem rare, considering that behind-the-scenes shorts are usually edited to be used as promos and extended trailers.

Plus, like the 80s cult favorites, Real Genius and White Water Summer, North Shore was one of those rare 80s movies whose cult appeal partly stemmed from a fairly decent soundtrack (by 1980s standards, of course!), this one featuring tracks by Australian performers such as Gangajang’s excellent, unofficial national anthem, “Sounds of Then (This is Australia).”

Despite corny dialog and again, rampant cliches, the film has maintained a strong cult following over the years, which of course, helped the transition to DVD in early 2007, marking the 20th anniversary of the movie. And thankfully fans were delivered a handful of beefy extras, although the drawback is a somewhat excessively saccharine commentary about how it was just about everyone’s dream just to appear not just in a surf movie, but in this surf movie.

The leading role of Rick Kane was played by Matt Adler. Like most of the actors in this film, he kicked around as a supporting character of B-movies for years, though John Philbin may have been the more visible among the professional cast. Ironically or not, Adler would kind of repeat the Kane model when he played a timid high school swimmer in the 1990 movie, Diving In. (By the mid 90s, Adler would take blink-and-you-miss-him roles in an array of idiotic and convoluted indie dramedies like Quiet Days in Hollywood and Hollywood Palms before fading out altogether with just a footpath of ADR Loop credits every now and again).

But here, he’s just Rick Kane, a surfer fresh from the wave tanks of Arizona. Just out of high school, he takes his meager contest winnings (well… maybe meager by today’s financial standards) and heads to Hawaii for the summer. His mother pleads that he consider his future, since he’s been offered a scholarship to an art school in New York City. “I hear the East River’s got some pretty hot waves,” he jokes, viewing the trip as an imperative, not only as a much needed break from 12 consecutive years of schooling, but also to find out whether or not he has any sort of real talent for surfing before it’s too late.

Kane is ambitious, inspired by his idol, Lance Burkhart (Laird Hamilton) who makes fine bank surfing professionally. But, he is also young, naive, and extremely cocky. For someone accustomed to surfing ripples in a wave tank, he can’t just expect to float a twin fin shortboard into some of North Shore’s most intense surf with any sort of ease.

Rick gets no warm welcome when he arrives, anyway. The guy he intends to stay with flakes on the invitation. All but his board is stolen at the beach by an obnoxious local with no tolerance for haoles (tourists). And the big kicker: he even finds out his surfing idol, Lance Burkhart, is a major asshole. Uncertain what to do at this point, having traveled 4,000 miles only to wind up broke and stranded, things start to turnaround when he meets goofy, Pidjen-speaking surfboard shaper, Turtle (played wonderfully by scene-stealing John Philbin who now runs a surf school on the North Shore) who tries to explain to Rick the social customs of the legendary surf destination (“[He works] only when the surf is bad… cause when the surf is good, no one works!”). And Turtle introduces Rick to the surfboard company owner, Chandler (Gregory Harrison), who becomes his soul-surfing mentor when Rick agrees to redesign his company logo in exchange for a place to stay.

A great feature of this film is that as Chandler mentors Rick on surfing, the viewers are given a speed course on the mechanics of board shaping and the anatomy of the beach, a rare piece of Surfing Appreciation 101 for a fictional surf film. Amidst the obligatory coaching of the underdog and inspiring that drive away from commercial to a more spiritual fondness for the sport is the sub-plot of Rick falling in love with the lovely local girl, Kiani (Nia Peeples), and is constantly met with intimidating opposition from the overly-protective males in her family (her uncle is played by pro-surfer Gerry Lopez).

The movie was left open for a sequel and Rick Kane assures his friends, Turtle and Kiani, “Hey, I’ll be back!” but the idea was nixed due to poor reception of the first film. That can be an awkward way to leave things off… unless it became a reunion film at this point.

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3 Responses

  1. I can’t believe I’ve never seen or heard of this before… strange.

  2. […] more prominent role was the leading part in the late 80s surf movie, North Shore (see the related Muvika post). Jonathan Ward co-starred as one of the first batch of kids to be looked after in Charles in […]

  3. What was Chandler’s first name?
    How did rick go to North Shore in the “summer” but when he arrives it’s halloween. Big waves are Oct-Jan, yet he goes off to school (October) in the last scene.

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