White Water Summer is a weird movie that was made in either 1985 or 1987 (more on that in a minute.) It stars a youngish Kevin Bacon and a very young Sean Astin. It starts out as a comedy and then it turns into a tribute to male bonding bullshit and then it’s a comedy again and then it’s a thriller and then it’s back to the male bonding as Kevin and Sean go camping together and then it’s a thriller and then Sean Astin has to cross a rickety bridge and the whole movie turns into Lord of the Rings. And then Kevin Bacon starts singing and you’re like, “Oh my God, this is a musical too!” And then suddenly, Kevin Bacon starts acting all crazy-like and it’s a thriller again. But then Kevin breaks his leg and it’s up to Sean Astin to save his life, despite the fact that Kevin appeared to be attempting to kill all the campers just a few minutes earlier. So, I guess that would count as more male bonding BS.
(One great thing about being a girl is that I’ve never had to prove myself by going camping. Or, for that matter, killing a wild boar while armed only with a sharpened stick. Seriously, I imagine that would be difficult and messy! BLEH!)
Another reason why White Water Summer is a weird movie is because it’s on TV like every other week. According to what I’ve read online, White Water Summer was not even released into theaters. (Even stranger, I have yet to find a single interview where Kevin Bacon even acknowledges that this film exists and that’s saying something when you consider that Kevin has never been shy about mentioning how many bad films he’s appeared in. Kevin regularly talks about Quicksilver, for fug’s sake!) And yet somehow, this film that nobody appears to have wanted has achieved an odd sort of basic cable immortality.
And that immortality is why I’m taking the time to review this movie. Because, seriously, White Water Summer seems to show up on TV even more than The Shawshank Redemption or reruns of Cops! That’s a lot!
Anyway, as for the film itself, it’s basically a celebration of male bonding bullshit. Alan (Sean Astin) is a sheltered kid from New York. He’s into astronomy and plays chess. To toughen him up, his parents arrange for Alan to go on a camping trip with Vic (Kevin Bacon), this ultra intense guide who talks in zen riddles and occasionally dangles people over the edge of a mountain. Alan doesn’t want to go and, at first, he struggles to get along with the other three boys on the hike.
However, soon all of the boys have a common bond. They all fear (and yet, because this is male bonding bullshit, strangely respect) Vic, who apparently is a bit of authoritarian. Vic is determined to make them into men and his techniques including forcing them to cross a rickety bridge, forcing them to fish by hand, forcing them to carry a canoe across a hill, and finally abandoning them for a night in the middle of the wilderness. At one point, when Alan ends up falling off a mountain and finds himself dangling in mid-air at the end of a rope. Vic refuses to help him. Instead, Alan must find his own way to get back on the mountain. Alan manages to do just that but seriously, what the Hell is Vic thinking? At times, the movie suggests that Vic is a sociopath and then, at other times, it suggests that his methods are actually working. After all, by the end of the summer, Alan is a lot more confident and he also knows how catch fish.
And really, that’s what makes this movie so strange. It has no idea who Vic is supposed to be and, as a result, the film doesn’t know if it’s a comedy, a thriller, or a coming-of-age adventure movie. Towards the end of the movie, Vic finally goes too far and gets smacked in the face with an oar. This leads to Vic breaking his leg and suddenly, it’s up to Alan to save Vic’s life. In order to do so, Alan has to call on a combination of his own intelligence and the survival skills that he learned from Vic. So, that would seem to suggest that the movie is partially pro-Vic but, if that’s the case, why was Vic also portrayed as being somewhat psychotic? Is this film pro-psychopath or is it just anti-Alan? It’s hard to tell.
Making things even stranger is Alan’s narration. In between scenes of camping, hiking, and attacking, we get these weird little vignettes of a slightly older Sean Astin speaking directly to the audience. (According to the imdb, the camping scenes were filmed in 1985 while Astin’s narration was filmed in 1987.) Narrator Alan is snarky and sarcastic, which would suggest that he doesn’t feel that he learned anything of value from the whole experience. So does older Alan regret saving Vic’s life? Does he still resent the fact that his parents forced him to go on the hike? Or is he just trying to impress us with attitude? Again, it’s hard to tell exactly what the film was trying to accomplish.
Watching White Water Summer, it’s obvious that, in 1985, there were difficulties that probably left the film incomplete. Astin’s 1987 narration was obviously tacked on in a desperate attempt to try to save the movie. To be perfectly honest, it’s fascinating to witness how haphazardly this film was put together. One of the pleasures of White Water Summer is watching this oddly edited film and trying to figure out what exactly happened.
Anyway, I’ve never been into the whole camping or hiking thing and, after watching White Water Summer, I have no regrets.* And yet, this is another one of those films that I do think that everyone should watch at least once, just because the movie itself is so weird.
Add to that, it’s on TV all the time!
* Now Wild, that’s a great hiking film!