Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton Is Full of Whoa-Worthy Surfing

I’d never heard of Laird Hamilton before Take Every Wave, but then again I’d never been that big into the world of surfing. I’m sure my not knowing the most famous name in the art of catching waves would make any surfing enthusiast’s jaw drop, but that’s why a documentary like this one exists, even if it’s presented in a typical format of talking heads and stunning B-roll.

Hamilton surfing a wave

Laird Hamilton and one of many big waves. IFC Films

Hamilton tells his story from the very beginning, going back to his childhood in Hawaii, where it was easy enough to become obsessed with the sport of boards. There are a few interesting tidbits about this portion of his life, including how native Hawaiian students would insult the white students. A few stories and archival footage later, our subject begins picking up steam in the media world by being the perfect model for photographs. This would lead to his short acting career as a surfer in the 1987 film North Shore. But he’s never as interested in all that fame as he is about the surfing.

Documentarian Rory Kennedy keeps her film as focused on Hamilton’s surfing as he himself is. While we do get some back stories and interesting asides, the camera never veers off from the majesty and seriousness of riding waves. We see every aspect of the man’s training, which stresses underwater weights and intensive leg exercises. He’s not overdoing it. There are plenty of horror stories to be told of what happens when a surf goes wrong, one awful tale involving the skin being ripped off a leg when one error is made.

Hamilton training underwater

Laird does underwater training for his next big surf. IFC Films

Still, Hamilton embraces a rambunctious attitude toward sports that made him a bit of a rebel of the waters. He relays tales from school about being the biggest troublemaker of his class and tells one story about learning the difference between nautical miles and kilometers the hard way when he and a friend paddled on their boards from Italy to Corsica.

One of the most interesting things about Laird Hamilton is that he isn’t exactly a professional surfer. He never competed in any big games, as he just didn’t want to handle such competition. He’s also really only interested in big-wave surfing, favoring the largest and most dangerous of waves—not for the timid California kids with a board and a little bit of attitude. Riding waves as high as 100 feet, Hamilton is more of a thrill seeker than an athlete, despite putting in the same amount of training and devotion as any pro competitor. The footage and photos of him braving the most massive walls of water are the real meat of this documentary; Hamilton looks just plain cool for his daring in the face of such intimidating forces of nature.

Hamilton surfing a wave

Laird Hamilton surfing next to a giant wave. IFC Films

Take Every Wave doesn’t fight the tide when it comes to sports documentaries—it features mostly talking heads who boast about Hamilton’s determination and his philosophy for surfing. But when the footage finally reaches those big waves and his skill at weathering them, the film breaks away from its more typical sports babble and biography to become something worthy of a Keanu Reeves–style “Whoa.” It makes his practically insane focus on his goal seem worthy of his obsession in some of the most impressive surfing footage ever filmed. Even for someone like me, not all that engrossed or thrilled in the world of surfing going into it, Take Every Wave has enough personality and amazement to make Laird Hamilton more notable and his accomplishments worth noting.

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