So a couple of weeks ago I noticed that White Water Summer was going to be on one of the random movie channels on the higher end of my digital cable menu (Encore? Flix? FX Movies? Movierama? Video Empire?), I thought, “Yes! I am SO watching this and blogging about it!” Then I couldn’t help but laugh when I set up the recording because the of the description that Comcast provided: “Kevin Bacon plays a sadist in charge of adolescents on a camping trip.”
If you take that description at face value along with the title, it sounds like a horror movie, as if Bacon plays the serial killer in some bad Friday The 13th ripoff (which, considering White Water Summer‘s 1987 release date isn’t entirely unrealistic); however, the film is actually a coming-of-age tale that involves Kevin Bacon in one of his douchiest roles, as an outward bound-type counselor named Vic who takes a very reluctant, scared kid named Alan (played by Sean Astin) and several others on a trip into the wilderness.
It’s not a movie that a lot of people have seen–it never made it past its original limited release and I’m sure it wasn’t flying off video store shelves–and it wasn’t well-received, getting a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But I have to say that the reason I wanted to blog about this movie isn’t because it is a great piece to play in a game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” (if anyone actually plays that game anymore), but because this was one of those movies that I rented over and over as a kid and with which I have always felt this oddly deep connection.
As I mentioned, Kevin Bacon’s Vic is an expedition leader who is clearly a full-fledged “nature boy” because when we see him for the very first time, he is walking down the streets of New York City wearing the same fully loaded backpack that you’d wear when hiking through the rough terrain of the Rocky Mountains. He is there to visit Alan, who is basically Sean Astin in his Goonies phase, as opposed to another, older Alan who narrates the movie, which is Astin in his “Kirk Cameron’s wise-assed sidekick” phase. This, by the way, was because most of the movie was filmed in 1985 but shelved, then there were Ferris Bueller/Zack Morris-type interstitials where an older Alan would talk to the camera to offer commentary about what was going on that were shot two years later right before the film was released.
Anyway, Alan winds up being convinced (he’s kind of forced) to go on the trip and heads off with three other guys: Mitch (Jonathan Ward, who played middle child Doug Pembroke on the first season of Charles in Charge), George (K.C. Martel, who played Mike Seaver’s friend Eddie on Growing Pains), and Chris (Matt Adler, who starred in the 1987 surfing flick, North Shore). George and Chris are the older guys who tend to look down on Mitch and Alan and even give Alan the nickname “Dickface.” They head off to the woods and almost immediately, Alan proves to be the “problem” on the trip–he carves his name in a tree, he doesn’t want to catch a fish with his bare hands, he freaks out when crossing a rope bridge, and is literally left hanging when he’s too scared to rappel across a huge rock formation named Devil’s Tooth.
That’s a huge simplification of most of the movie, but most of what happens is basically tension between the very reluctant and often scared Alan and the “Oh come on, you guys are going to be great at this and if you aren’t, I’m going to push you until you DO WHAT I TELL YOU!!!” Vic. The other guys do get into it with Vic here and there, especially the night he leaves them all alone in a thunderstorm and they freak the hell out (George, especially, who hams it up rather dramatically). But for the most part, Alan is “dickface” the entire time and Vic’s their brave leader and a really cool guy. Until that moment I mentioned in Devil’s Tooth, which is when they all turn on Vic by walking away from him to go back to the ranger station, then when he tracks them down (and is slightly unhinged), beat the crap out of him and break his leg. So it becomes up to Alan to take a wounded Vic down a raging river to get help (hence, the white water in the summer).
As far as coming-of-age stories go, it is a bit tepid, especially by today’s standards. There’s no sex, there’s no horror, there aren’t any real quotable linesand one of the few things that you can really laud it for is that it’s shot beautifully. But I rented this movie at least four or five times between the time I first saw it in 1987 and the time I started junior high school in 1989, which is odd for a kid who was subsiding on a steady diet of Schwarzenegger, Seagal, and Van Damme. Sean Astin finally getting up the courage to make his way across a dangerous rope bridge and being left to figure out how to rappel over a ravine isn’t exactly Arnold camouflaging himself with mud and setting all sorts of woodland traps for the alien in Predator; and while Kevin Bacon’s Vic is a total jackass, I wouldn’t say that he’s that Bolo Yeung in Bloodsport. Still, I loved it and still love it because when I was 10 years old, I identified with Alan.
The 1980s had its fair share of adventure movies for kids and while some, like The Goonies, are well-remembered and well-loved (and rightfully so), there are plenty that are easily forgotten (Russkies? The Rescue? *shudder* SpaceCamp?). I did enjoy quite a few of them when I was young, but the ones I really connected had characters that I felt were very much like myself. I was too young to feel like I was Elliott from E.T. (I saw that movie when I was 5), but I seriously was Gordie from Stand By Me (another movie my friends and I watched over and over), and considering how scared I seemed to be of … well, anything that could cause potential bodily harm, I was definitely Alan when I was 10. And considering that I developed quite a wise-assed streak when I was a teenager, I was definitely older/narrator Alan when I was 16.
Plus, while the movie isn’t some epic production, there are a few moments that are really cool and even genuinely scary. When Vic leaves the kids alone on the night of a thunderstorm as a way for them to “prove they’re ready” to take Devil’s Tooth, the thunderstorm scene does get a little melodramatic, but I think that if I were alone in the middle of the woods and there was a raging thunderstorm going on, I’d be freaking out as much as these guys do. The pissing contest goes a little far, though–but maybe that’s me who doesn’t like to pee in front of other people. Alan on the rope bridge? Definitely frightening, especially since this is only a year or two removed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and when one of the support ropes breaks you completely understand why he just wants to hold on for dear life. And by the time Vic takes all of the guys up to Devil’s Tooth and we as the audience are kind of siding with Alan (even if we are kind of saying to ourselves, “Yeah, I’d get tired of this kid’s crap, too”), the scene when he leaves Alan hanging on a rope (albeit a stable one) and tells him to figure out getting across that gap alone … well, I still got that “I would crap myself” feeling. I mean, I couldn’t even do a trust fall when I was at Frost Valley in the ninth grade, so I would never have been able to swing across a ravine like that, especially after someone had left me there to do it by myself. I would spend most of the time crying, wishing I was home, wanting my dad to come pick me up, soiling myself, and then maybe would figure out how to get across.
But while Alan is the scared kid for most of the movie, he does overcome his fear, even though he is completely stubborn and refuses to embrace Vic’s love of the great outdoors right up to the bitter end, and that’s the type of triumph that I can remember wanting in my “one day my life will be a movie”-addled pre-adolescent brain. The fact that the script, while not spectacular, at least has the guys talking pretty close to real kids their age (as opposed to the kind of manufactured “teen speak” or “too-smart-for-your-age speak” that plagues too many of today’s movies and television shows) was important, because as stereotypical as they could be (Chris is the pretty boy; George is the wannabe bad-ass; Mitch is the nice, quiet one; and Alan’s the wimp) they sounded like me, my friends, and other guys at my school. Plus, the cinematography is great and the soundtrack isn’t too bad either (though you have to like Bruce Hornsby as well as Journey).
I know it seems that I’m rambling on here and may be over-praising a movie that I love because I saw when I was all of 10 years old that isn’t that good, but it’s one of the few times that I have been able to watch a movie from my childhood and still have it hold up, and at a time when it seems that I’m seeing everything from my childhood either being remade or I’m discovering that my memories are more golden than the reality, it’s nice to have at least one gem.