Make a Man Outta You: White Water Summer


Lord of the Rings was not the first time Sean Astin had been filming in New Zealand. Shooting began on TV director Jeff Bleckner’s adventure movie, White Water Summer in 1985, primarily shot in parts of California and New Zealand. The movie wasn’t actually released, however, until 1987. The flashback of a summer of various, critical rites of passage (well… except the ones of sexual maturity) are narrated by teenager Alan, played by Astin, reflecting on the events when he is a little older. A little wiser.

This is a movie that begins with a somewhat unusual premise: door-to-door camp recruitment. Kevin Bacon plays a purist wilderness guide named Vic. This was in his period of bouncing around in an unpredictable array of roles in terribly obscure films, even despite the notoriety of Footloose. He’s standing in the living room of Alan’s New York apartment, presenting a slideshow of his previous summer of “making men out of boys” by hiking them around the Northeastern United States. He promises great experiences. Alan’s dad is vicariously hyped, having said that most of his summer vacations at Alan’s age were spent in the backseat of the family station wagon going to an uncle’s farm. Alan’s mother is understandably fretful for the safety of the boys in the vast wilderness, though Vic assures her they’re in good care. And Alan… well, he’s less than enthused about the inopportune timing of the trip, given that the parents of a certain girl he likes are going out of town for a month.

Well, Alan’s successfully managed to duck all kind of camp, but since he has no real skills of persuasion, he’s off to join George (K. C. Martel), Chris (Matt Adler), Mitch (Jonathan Ward), and their fearless New Age guide, Vic, for a few weeks of camping. And it’s true, Vic delivers on his promise for some adventure. Things like hiking to near-death exhaustion, white water rafting, made-up lore told by the campfire, trout fishing with bare hands, crossing gorges on flimsy footbridges, testing the thresholds for exposure to the elements, and swinging from face of Devil’s Tooth.

Sure, the description makes it seem like an intentionally comical movie, but seriously, Vic is crazy. But his being crazy is crazy since there is no real consistency in his character. Though, there really isn’t any consistency to young Alan either, who seems in startling contrast (whiny nerd) to his older counterpart (hot shot). Did a few weeks in the woods do all that?! But Vic, on the other hand, makes a more severe, but unexplained, leap in personality, transforming from easy-going purist camp guide who encourages his troupe of young campers to abandon their city-bred vices to a sociopath who forces four, relatively unprepared teenagers to survive in the mountains on their own. The movie might have been better as a thriller and that whole idea of young boys pitted against a loose screw (which Bacon does particularly well) in an unfamiliar environment more convincing.

White Water Summer never made much noise, and really still hasn’t, which unfortunately leaves little background available on the movie. Although, it did finally make the transition to DVD. Sean Astin might be a draw. Kevin Bacon, as well. But the remaining members of a cast of five are three actors who rarely showed up in much else of note. Matt Adler’s 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 Charge, but may be better remembered by the decade’s B-movie nostalgic as the older brother in the E.T. knock-off, Mac & Me. And K. C. Martel, aside from playing one of the oldest brothers friends in the real E.T., would go on to play Mike Seaver’s friend for several episodes of Growing Pains. And that’s about it.

Obscurity and character inconsistencies aside, this movie has several things working in its favor. For one thing, Englishman John Alcott, who frequently worked with Stanley Kubrick, served as the cinematographer for this film. A dedication for him appears in the ending credits, since he died one year prior to the film’s release. Under his guidance, the movie offers some amazing glimpses into vast wilderness, and generally does well enough to project that sense of alarm and adventure.

This is also one of those movies that had a characteristically 80s soundtrack with some decent songs that were never released beyond a few popular selections by The Cult, Bruce Hornsby, and Journey on unrelated albums. Once in a while, faithful diggers might find them in their digital hunt, as had been done for fans of Real Genius or with Michael Sembello’s “Rock Until You Drop” single from Monster Squad, but with this movie, those unfortunately remain rare to even find off-screen.

Considering the high obscurity factor, it’s a wonder the movie ever made it to DVD at all. But it’s something the younger nostalgics will likely add to lists of coveted favorites if the cheesiness is forgivable. You can track it down on Netflix.

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One Response

  1. It’s so cool I found this.
    Did you ever wonder WHY the ages seem to vary so wildly in the movie?
    Sure, Astin is a lot older in the bizarre, uneven narration scenes (which don’t make sense in the overall sense of the movie. is it a comedy? a drama? thriller? wtf?)… but why, in some scenes, is EVERYONE older, like the “peeing” scene…?

    what happened? does anyone know?

    why was it filmed in 1985 but not released until 1987? does anyone know what happened? this has been bugging me for ages…

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