Johnny Tsunami is a winning sports movie. In Disney Channel Original Movie terms, it's like the filmmakers dug around in the Brink! formula and improved it in every way. Though there's lots of carefully shot stuntmen surfing, skiing, and snowboarding, the most interesting and pleasantly surprising aspect of the movie is its entirely unspoken racial subtext. It's quietly revolutionary in the way so many major characters are people of color and the central conflict is between WASPy private school insiders trying to keep their mountaintop clubhouse free of the public school kids they call "urchins." On the surface level, the plot's a clash between snobby fake cliques of rich kids and laid-back authentic groups of normal kids. But both utterly present and largely unmentioned is the way the plot involves an injection of diversity into a very white town.
The only reason either aspect of the plot works at all is that this amiable kid-sized drama focuses in on the seriousness with which a 13-year-old approaches his world. When we meet Johnny Kapahala (Brandon Baker), a native Hawaiian, he's a talented surfer following in his beloved grandfather's footsteps. The older man, Johnny Tsunami (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), is legendary with a long board and couldn't be prouder to watch his grandson excelling in the sport they love. But young Johnny's father (Yuji Okumoto) has taken a new job that will force their family to move, leaving their grandfather and surfing behind. The boy doesn't understand right away. His father says they're moving "back east." "Kuwai?" the boy says. Hardly.
Transplanted to Skyline Academy in Vermont, Johnny feels totally out of place. On his first day he tries to fit in by going skiing with WASPy bullies, led by a typical teen movie popular kid villain, Brett (Zachary Bostrom), who invite him for the express purpose of humiliating him. It turns out surfing skills don't translate to the ski slopes all that well. In fact, Johnny's in a real state of culture shock in every possible way. His laid-back islander surfer attitude clashes with the uptight private school rulebook at every turn. Even the schoolmate who is nicest to him, the headmaster's daughter (none other than Zenon herself, Kirsten Storms), bristles at his uncomfortable fit. She feels sorry for him, but seems to think he should compromise to fit in.
Luckily Johnny discovers snowboarding, a totally "urchin" activity in this town. He becomes fast friends with Sam (Lee Thompson Young), a public school kid with a regularly transferred military father (Cylk Cozart). Their similar outsider statuses prompted by paternal job placement provides a fast bond between the two as Sam heads out to the slopes to teach Johnny the ropes. It turns out snowboarding and surfing do have a lot in common. The scenes between Johnny and Sam are the movie's most charming. Baker and Young have fine buddy chemistry and they seem to genuinely care for each other. It's a nicely unforced sense of friendship that feels convincing.
A highlight of Johnny Tsunami is how convincing its emotional journey feels. The screenplay by Ann Knapp and Douglas Sloan has sports movie mechanics whir around in predictable fashion and the slopes' stupid unquestioned skiing privilege is shaken up satisfyingly as Johnny helps the public school kids question their place in the local hierarchy. That's well and good, but the movie's smart about the connections between groups of likeminded individuals and the way diversity can help break down barriers when you really stop to get to know a new person. And it's all pitched so consistently at an unhurried and utterly appropriate modest level, with emotions and conflict bubbling out of the typical churn of early adolescent anxieties heightened by a cross-country move.
Veteran stuntman-turned-director Steve Boyum gets performances of unforced charisma out of the young actors. Baker holds his own in the movie's center and there's plenty of room in the ensemble for notable turns. Storms is quite good in a very un-Zenon role, while Young (who sadly died earlier this year at the age of 29) gives a supporting performance overflowing with natural charm. As for the adult characters, they're hardly discounted or written off as mere plot points. There's some care taken to make them feel real as well, a nice balance to the movie's focus on the younger players. (Especially strong is the grandfatherly presence of Tagawa's title character.) The movie pays much sharper attention to its characters and their feelings than I was anticipating, creating a movie that's so generic in its broad strokes, but so appealing in details both emotional and subtextual that I found Johnny Tsunami to be a most welcome surprise.
Up next: Genius
Note: Project DCOM will be going on hiatus over the holidays. It will return in 2014.