TIFF 2022 Review: Stephanie Johnes’ “Maya and the Wave” Hits a High Watermark

“Maya and the Wave” spends more time than you’d expect on Maya Gabiera’s first attempt at conquering the tallest tides the Portuguese town of Nazaré has to offer, lured by the potential of setting a world record when waves are known to crest at 100 feet high. She’s humbled, if not killed when pulled into the rip current, with those monitoring the situation with the expectation of capturing a feat for Guinness instead coming to believe they might be seeing a tragedy unfold before them as she bleeds from the ear, later discovered not to be the result of a head trauma but a reef she struck as she was submerged. Having the raw footage allows director Stephanie Johnes to not only capture the chaos of the moment and the improbable odds physically that Gabiera will have to overcome should she want to make a second attempt at the record, but the notion that the only thing less forgiving than the water are the people around her in a sport where the result is everything.

Mental toughness is intriguingly seen as both a virtue and a vulnerability in “Maya and the Wave” where Gabiera can be admired for working her way back from the devastating fall, but Johnes is able to diverge from a traditional comeback trail story when she isn’t exactly welcome to return, with many seeing her record attempt as a folly in the first place when they believe she shouldn’t have even tried it as a woman. No less than the legendary Laird Hamilton can be heard on CNN saying she shouldn’t have been out there in the first place and even those that aren’t critical of her abilities are of the mindset that she’s on her own to recover, with her partner at the time Carlos Burle wondering why people questioned his decision to ride the same wave after Gabiera was hauled away in an ambulance, believing there was no purpose he could serve by staying with her.

There’s no indication that Gabiera wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing if the roles were reversed, but it becomes clear that her rehabilitation is about more than just herself when to leave things be would to reaffirm what others in the surfing community thought of her all along as a big wave surfer — good for marketing materials when there’s a clear charisma about her, but not to be taken seriously otherwise. Johnes and editors Shannon Kennedy and Jordan Berg shrewdly stray from a chronologically linear path to chart where Gabiera’s resolve comes from, watching her navigate the highs and lows of the world in front of her as if she’s carrying around her surfboard all the time and gradually revealing the knowledge she’s armed with as a tireless athlete who’s long made up for what she’s lacked in natural skill with training and the daughter of a political firebrand who survived his own brush with death.

Although Gabiera’s openness would separate the film from the pack, particularly as she goes through a grueling recovery from the herniated disc, equally so is the candor that comes from the male surfers that Johnes interviews who dispense with political correctness and reveal the sport’s entrenched misogyny that they might not even be aware of as they support her goals. Even when Gabiera can prove herself objectively, “Maya and the Wave” illuminates how the measuring stick remains in the hands of men as recognition with awards and even the Guinness Book of World Records involves some strangely subjective hurdles to clear, but by spending more time observing failures than success, both in Gabiera’s frustrating efforts to get back out in the water and the system itself that she has to operate in, the triumphs feel all that much sweeter.

“Maya and the Wave” does not yet have U.S. distribution.