For most of us here in the United States, the biggest milestone that comes with turning 21 is finally being able to legally drink. But for Australian Stephanie Gilmore, the subject of Ava Warbrick’s first documentary, “Stephanie In The Water,” turning 21 meant already having collected three world titles as the No. 1 world female surfer as well as dozens of other awards. Warbrick, raised in Australia and a surfer herself, admired Gilmore’s determination to succeed, as well as the talent that had brought her to the championships time and time again.
Gilmore, who has surfed competitively since 2005, really does make surfing look effortless, as if jet packs at the end of her board are pushing her along. But it’s just her, alone, out there in the water. Some of the most important moments in Gilmore’s life have taken place when she’s been alone. For example, take every wave she’s ever ridden to a world title — but there’s also the night of Dec. 27, 2010, when she was attacked near her home with an iron bar.
The attack left her with a fractured wrist and multiple stitches in her head. The force of the blows bent her cell phone in half, which was in the hand she threw over her face and head for protection.
The terrifying attacker was caught by neighbors as he fled the scene, but Gilmore’s fear and unease didn’t flee with him.
“He basically just knocked that happiness out of me, which was such a strange feeling,” she says in the film of the aftermath.
The film is a very interview-heavy documentary, and the nature of its subject means that almost every scenic shot is of the beach in some way, which sometimes feels repetitive. “Stephanie In The Water” is split just about equally between the two periods of Gilmore’s life — before the attack and after it — but it’s not until after the attack that Warbrick shows a clearer sense of who Gilmore really is.
After the attack, Gilmore struggles to rally herself and tap back into that deep drive to win again in order to get back on her feet on her board and off of it.
“It’s kind of funny for some young child to dream and want to be the very best at something, the best person in the whole world,” she muses at one point. “Why do we want to be the very best in the whole world, when nothing physically happens? You don’t gain a superpower when you win a title of the world. So why do we — why do some of us just dream it and make our whole lives consumed by what we can do to achieve it?”
Toward the end of the film, there’s one particular scene of Gilmore riding a wave. She’s done it a million times before on screen, but this feels special. Chris Bryan’s water cinematography is absolutely beautiful here, so much so that one may feel the need to rewind and watch this scene again. This scene makes the rest of his work in “Stephanie In The Water” pale in comparison, and Brooklyn-based company Fall On Your Sword’s original score excels here too, falling brilliantly into the category of atmospheric without being too moody. Gilmore’s ride on this wave feels different from all of the others.
Watching her ride this wave, everything seems to click: The entire film is about her and the talent and effort she throws into surfing, but here it unequivocally appears for the first time. As she rides the crest, cutting back and forth occasionally, the camera follows. Once or twice, it’s obstructed by the poles of a marquee or a spectator’s head, but it’s still completely trained on her. When she nears the shoulder of the wave and the barrel narrows, she drops onto the other side of it and disappears from view. She’s gone — she must have fallen or been dumped.
But then, sure enough, the wall of water subsides. There she is, right where she left off, soaring along on the wave’s tail end until she catches another one: laughing, upright, triumphant.
“Stephanie in the Water” is now available for digital download at stephanieinthewater.com.