At a later point in Helen Hunt‘s “Ride,” when her hard-charging New Yorker is getting surf lessons from Californian Luke Wilson, Wilson pauses to explain the mechanics of waves for the benefit of the novice surfer: The crests and breaks you see on the top are one thing, but what truly shapes the wave is the changes in the ocean floor and seabed, far below the shimmering surface and hidden in the darkness.
It’s good surfing advice; it’s also not a bad metaphor for Hunt’s film, where she’s writer, director and lead actor, telling a story whose early broad brightness turns out to be shaped by traumas and tragedies that aren’t immediately apparent.
While initially playing like a fish-out-of-water (or, more specifically, into-the-water) rom-com, Hunt’s “Ride” winds up being surprisingly satisfying, a film with the guts to talk about the things that really matter underneath what could have been a glib, shallow version of the same tale. And anyone sniffing that “Ride” simply looks like wish fulfillment for women of a certain age would do well to remember that considering how many wretched films we sit through in the name of wish fulfillment for young men, a little equality in entertainment goes a long way.
Hunt stars as Jackie, a elegant Manhattanite and editor for The New Yorker; her son Angelo (Brenton Thwaites) is about to begin college, and he’s far less sure about it than she is. Under pressure and tired of New York’s crowded streets and concrete canyons (not to mention the polluted waves off Coney Island), Angelo snaps lightly, drops out before he’s even in, and turns a visit to his father on the West Coast into a voluntary exile in Los Angeles. Jackie, teetering on her heels all the way, comes to get him.
Collaborating with cinematographer Jas Shelton (“Jeff Who Lives at Home,” “Cyrus,” “Togetherness”), Hunt captures both the glittering promise and the less-than-ideal realities of L.A. Hunt’s hard-driving publishing professional wants nothing to do with a town where, as she notes, “by the time you’ve driven to the museum, you’ve lost the will to look at a single painting.” But when she comes to retrieve Angelo, he’s having none of it and wants to stay, and he loves surfing for a number of reasons, including the final one he spits at his mom: “You’d never do it for fear of getting your hair wet!”
It’s very much worth noting that everyone on-screen here is excellent, including Thwaites; perhaps best known for “Maleficent” and “The Giver,” he’s got an easy and natural byplay with Hunt, affectionate but sharp, revealing some pain inside the love. Wilson plays the surfing instructor who won’t put up with Hunt’s misplaced hubris that surfing must be easy, and he’s agreeably no-nonsense about surfing and light and funny about everything else.
Hunt’s work as writer, director and star is superb, for the most part; the film has a lamentable tendency to underline its own dialogue, as if it’s worried we might have missed something or might not have caught an earlier allusion. The sound design and sound editing are both great, often being used to evoke the roar of the shore as a wave comes in towards the sand. And Hunt has a good eye for the strangeness of Southern California, whether it’s a coyote drinking from a gutter or the seemingly unchanging nature of bohemian surfing cliques.
With the maxim of all unhappy families being unique in full effect, the later acts of “Ride” go deeper and never get lost; there’s something behind and beneath all of this mother-son-family trouble, and Hunt’s characters deal with it like you and I would: Through talking and pain, taking blame and accepting forgiveness.
Hunt’s script is too sharp and funny to dismiss “Ride” as rote, and her expressive and informed visual storytelling keep the film moving, attractive and striking. In surfing, as in life, you have to get back up when you fall; “Ride” succeeds when it explores that familiar idea with uncommon artistry, emotion and human warmth.