Movie Review: The River Runner

The River Runner may sound like a fairly bland title for a kayak documentary but these white water rapids run deep. The film title is probably a reworking of The Kite Runner, intimating that while kayaking is the medium, there’s a psychological and spiritual dimension at play. This isn’t an ordinary documentary but rather an emotive character portrait, focused on the life of Scott Lindgren, featuring many renowned kayakers including: Aniol Serrasolses, South Africa’s very own Hendri Coetzee and directed by Rush Sturges.

Starting with his life’s ambition to kayak the four great rivers diverging in cardinal directions from the Himalayas into Tibet, China, India and Pakistan, we rewind the story to his tough childhood. For the Lindgren brothers, they were raised to be fighters, enduring a divorce, bullying and moving from one valley to another across the States. Channeling his restless teen spirit in all the wrong directions, it wasn’t until Scott became a river guide that his true purpose breached the torrid waters of his life.

From being driftwood to adopting a laser focus on perfecting the art of kayaking, his passion for the sport turned into an unbreakable connection to the river. The River Runner documents Lindgren’s descent into becoming one of the sport’s early pioneers and legends, whose unflappable confidence and edginess characterised his full immersion. Bottling up his demons, the river gave Lindgren an opportunity to vent and risk everything in pursuit of the ultimate rush and reaching the pinnacle of kayaking – conquering the Karnali, Sutlej, Tsangpo, and Indus.

While surf videos have been a thing for decades, kayaking was still in its developmental stages. Lindgren charged into this media domain, creating a production company to capture the natural beauty, daredevil feats and tough conditions of the sport in California and on trips to Asia and Africa. Capturing thousands of hours of footage ranging from aerial to GoPro, The River Runner selects some of the most incredible moments to craft this compelling and visually-striking documentary.

Pivoting on Lindgren, The River Runner isn’t the equivalent of a surf video of wild exploits with a driving soundtrack. While it harnesses elements of this genre, the photography creates a vivid and transportive backdrop for a powerful true story about chasing down a dream. You’d expect to hear the likes of Pearl Jam blasting the kayakers through the most dangerous sections of the river expedition, but this is more of an Into the Wild journey.

river runner film

Into the washing machine.

Eddie Vedder’s solo music helped whittle a soulful feel for Sean Penn’s brilliant biographical film about Christopher McCandless and while it’s completely absent from The River Runner – the docudrama has strong Eddie Vedder vibrations. From Lindgren’s tough upbringing, teenage angst, competitive edge and attempts to become one with nature, the rock ‘n roll is strong with this one. The pulsating world music captures much of the epic and spiritual element of Vedder and supports the quick-paced edit of this jam-packed 86 minute documentary.

Leaning into its stick-it-to-the-man attitude, Lindgren’s peers and pals don’t pull punches about his drive and “chip on the shoulder”. Lindgren furthers this intimate examination through an equally honest interview. While not the most likable character, his passion at all costs and spirit of adventure make for a compelling portrait as the extreme kayaking documentary covers his fall and comeback. Surrounded by teammates as Lindgren tends towards going solo, there’s a rockumentary pattern beneath The River Runner, covering the teamster hey days as the “band” go big and “sell out” before other “bandmates” join and things spiral out of control.

The River Runner is not unlike the South African big wave surfer documentary Ocean Driven featuring Chris Bertish. Carrying a similar goal orientation about reaching the summit of the sport with self-motivation, discipline and hard lines, both characters take self-made routes with crystal clear passion and purpose. While Bertish also experienced physical and emotional setbacks, Lindgren finds himself at an all-time low with a diagnosis that threatens to end his kayaking days and life.

This mesmerising film does become a bit scattershot in the second act as kayaking becomes an afterthought. During this time, Sturges conjures up emotions with Lindgren’s hiatus and alienation. Fulfilling its rockumentary undertones as if it were suddenly about Kurt and Courtenay, this tangent adds more gravitas to the emotional undercurrent. Stirring things up with a dire medical diagnosis only amplifies the self-destructive do-or-die spirit as The River Runner comes in to the final leg.

While a documentary, The River Runner covers so many bases and so much epic eye-popping footage that it feels like 2 hours have passed. Gripping in its storytelling, it draws an intimate character portrait and wanderlust out of a sport documentary that would typically be more distant. The quickfire edit keeps up the intensity and the powerful emotional hits do land thanks in part to its epic and soulful soundtrack. Filmed on location and over two decades, covering the tragedy and triumph, it’s a spirited and inspiring film with something for everyone.

Adventurers will appreciate Lingren’s pursuit and drive. Kayakers will marvel and truly comprehend the gravity of his achievements – even if it doesn’t have the detailed course plotting or gear overview. World travelers will enjoy the travelogue snippets and man vs. nature contest and spectacle. Rock ‘n rollers will resonate with the fire and fury of Lindgren’s inner turmoil and attempts to quell the beast within. Others will be drawn to the incredible triumph of the human spirit.

The bottom line: Epic