White Water Summer

White Water Summer is a curious movie that begins like a standard story of city youths introduced to manhood via an outdoor odyssey, then abruptly turns into Deliverance for adolescents.

The change comes after the four young campers are well into their journey through the great outdoors, as their leader (Kevin Bacon) becomes unnaturally cruel and dictatorial. They rebel and take charge of themselves, but the shift is so unexpected that the movie is thrown off-kilter.

The filmmakers seem to have realized this. Because Bacon’s character is initially reasonable and attractive, and because he’s played by the only name in the cast, we don’t expect his eventual freak-outs. So the camping story is broken up by occasional to-the-camera narration by the main character, played by Sean Astin, who carefully tries to distance the film from Bacon’s gung-ho character, as though to say, “Look, don’t get too attached to this Bacon fellow, ’cause he’s not what you think.” It’s pretty desperate. It also looks suspiciously like footage that was shot after the rest of the movie (Astin even looks older in the narration).

Astin plays a city kid who doesn’t want to go on the trip at all. And, once in the wild, Bacon makes him the focus of the punishment.

However, Bacon’s sadism is shared by the film itself, to a large extent. The campers are continually plunging down raging rivers, dangling from a sheer rock face, or crossing a deep gorge by means of a rickety bridge. This bridge is milked for all the stomach-turning drama it’s worth, including some queasy shots looking directly down into the abyss. Director Jeff Bleckner is insistent and manipulative in slamming your face into the dangers of the trip.

His camera angles are not the only reason for the movie’s queasiness. There’s something shifty about the film’s rejection of Bacon, since much of his advice is perfectly relevant to survival in the wilderness. In fact, after the kids rebel and Bacon is injured (he sustains the same compound fracture that sidelined Burt Reynolds in Deliverance), Astin and the other campers use the skills that Bacon taught them to bring him to safety – an irony the movie does not acknowledge.

The one admirable outpost of professionalism here is in the cinematography of the late John Alcott (the film is dedicated to him, in an unusual opening credit). Alcott’s clean work does tribute to the rocky hills and churning rivers that dominated the movie. Alcott’s lasting achievement is his work with Stanley Kubrick; his photography on Barry Lyndon and The Shining are among the most extraordinary jobs of cinematography in the cinema. White Water Summer is an inadequate send-off, in every way.

First published in The Herald, July 9, 1987

Apparently I was right about the narration; IMDb says it was shot two years after the rest of the movie. I haven’t heard anybody else confirm that my speculation is the reason – to inform the audience that Kevin Bacon is not supposed to be the hero – but I bet I’m right. Co-star Matt Adler would take the lead in North Shore, also released in ’87, and later marry Laura San Giacomo. Director Bleckner has had a long and busy career in TV. Alcott completed another film after this, No Way Out.

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