Movies that Matter revisits beloved movies to consider how they earn a place in the hearts of surfers. From that place of appreciation, movies are ranked in the pantheon of legendary surf footage. Five categories yield a combined final score to separate the Endless Summer wheat from the 1990’s Camcorder chaff.

Stranger than Fiction, released in 2007 and directed by Taylor Steele, kicks off the series with a solid score. But before understanding the film’s 37/50 report card, the five scoring categories and the rationale used to rank this and future movies are as follows:

The Surfing (10 possible points)

Flow, progression, and editing score. A barrel to air to cutback to second barrel to flared-out snap combo outscores four cutbacks. Flow and progression appear on single waves, but the segments of an edit represent a larger scale of flow and progression. Splice together too many of the same maneuvers or too many waves of the same person at the same break and minutes can crawl by.

The Soundtrack (10 possible points)

Music builds tension and emotion. Emotion supplies gravity. Eight straight punk rock tracks can leave viewers strung out. On the other hand, starting with a mellow track and building towards high-wattage Black Flag shredding could provide an auditory cue that the surfing is ratcheting up. Whether tapping niche artists with talent or major acts, sonic atmosphere critical.

The Narrative (10 possible points)

As with any Hollywood film, a theme lends clarity. Edits need transitions between surf segments. Without a driving question, meaningless transitions lead to sprawling derelict drawl that lacks cohesion. Without a unifying emotional experience, viewers do not feel connected, and the film cannot appeal to a broad audience.

The Intangibles (10 possible points)

This category is for the handful of other things that can set a movie apart. Waves are an intangible because the surf doesn’t have to be perfect Pipeline. A film about unexplored waves can be compelling regardless of the perfection of the waves. Another intangible is diversity. From gender, to boards, to surfers, mixing things up is good.

The Cultural Footprint (10 possible points)

The above categories combine with historical timeliness to dictate the cultural footprint of a film. Recognizing importance and quality necessitates considering how firmly the footage roots itself in the cultural imagination. A good surf film can establish a director’s reputation, make surfer’s career, and articulate personality and style. Most impressively, a surf film can reach outside of the hardcore surf canon and capture the non-surfing world’s imagination. The best surf films shape surf culture by shaping non-surfing communities because, like it or not, the future of surf culture is people who don’t surf yet.

With those categories in mind, it is time to parse Stranger than Fiction.

Surfing 10/10

Stranger than Fiction features near-toxic levels of progressive surfing. Taylor Steele is a premier auteur of surf filmmaking, so surfing’s biggest names Voltron up at Steele’s signal. The opening montage names featured surfers: Andy and Bruce Irons, Taj Burrow, Jordy Smith, Josh Kerr, Dane Reynolds, Kalani Robb, Julian Wilson, Dusty Payne, and more. Then, after the title pops up and the narrative device is re-introduced, another dozen surfers with guest spots are listed. Kelly Slater is the only surfer on earth not in this film, which feels disappointing (at the time it made sense, due to Kelly’s film schedule).

Narrative 10/10

The history of surfing is unraveling! Scandals rock the surf industry. Newscaster “Katrine McLovin” delivers segments like: “Dane Reynolds reported today that he pulled off the first ever double-flip aerial, but viewers complained they could still see the ropes used to stage the stunt,” while the bottom line streams by with breaking tidbits: “Joel Parkinson: ‘I’m actually a cat person’”

Pros are interviewed in silhouette like unnamed witnesses in a crime documentary. Benji Weatherley offers witness testimonial: “The first time I walked in on Kelly Slater doing backflips on a trampoline I was like ‘What? Why is my favorite surfer in here doing backflips?’ and he broke it down. I cried. I literally cried. Then, after ten minutes, I was over it, because I was doing backflips too. Now I do better backflips than I’ve ever done.”

If it seems hard to think of a better thread to tie otherwise incoherent segments of grotesque progression surfing together, don’t worry; no one has thought of a better premise for a feature-length surf porno.

Soundtrack 5/10

Moan-sung lyrics like: “Cuz I’m a punk rocker, yes I am” cannot be saved, even by Kalani Robb’s fierce shredding. It’s cute that maneuvers are often tethered to instrumental cues, but wow is there some bad music in this film.

The Intangibles 6/10

Waves are assaulted across the globe, but little time is devoted to reaching to those waves or otherwise building the gravity of these breaks. Steele’s concern is about the surfers. By placing the surfers and only the surfers in the foreground, he discretely acknowledges the fact that this movie is supposed to boost the career of every surfer involved. That there are no women is a testament to the cultural shifts in the sport. Board diversity is lacking as well.

Cultural Footprint – 6/10

Stranger than Fiction persists in the surfing world due to the premise, but it never managed to transcend the surf world (in fairness, it never aspired to be more than what it was – a mega-edit of the surf influencers of the period). This flick is just short of achieving the best possible score for high-intensity progressive surf smut, making a great watch for surfers, but not worth showing to a non-surfing friend unless they have some text messages to catch up on or prefer background noise while trolling Tinder.

Final score – 37/50