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First we learn (through stylized video flashbacks during the credits) that Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth) had some sort of surfing accident where she wacked her head on a rock under water, then the actual film starts.
Our heroine wakes up in the type of run down house that only independent 20-somethings would live in, and only if it happens to be a perfect climate like Hawaii where the only worry is rain. We quickly learn that Anne Marie still has the surfing bug 'cause she's working out on the beach at 5am, then on the phone for the Surf Report right after that. It's perfect surf, so she wakes up all her 3 room-mates. This includes her little sister who looks about 12, and immediately makes you wonder where the mother is.
Anne-Marie also has mis-matched eyes, one blue, one brown, from her skull-bashing surf accident, and is a complete surfer girl. She wears a ratty old bikini most of the day, and doesn't bother with things like showers because she's in the ocean so often.
They all head off to the beach where it becomes obvious all 4 girls are locals who grew up in Hawaii.
It also turns out that Anne Marie has quite a local rep as a good surfer, but she's also harbouring some serious fears from her near-drowning 3 years previous. She chickens out in the big waves now, much to her local supporters disgust.
All the girls jump in the car and head for their day jobs as hotel maids, dropping off Anne-Marie's sister Penny at school. We learn that the sisters' mother is a skank who is always running off with her boyfriend of the moment. We also learn that Anne-Marie was a wild teenager, now without any real prospects, who fears her little sister will fall into the same trap. We also learn that the girls are completely short on cash because of their low-paying jobs and loose life-style.
On the job at the hotel, the three girlfriends find out it's half-full of NFL footballers practicing for the Pro-Bowl, and they're all slobs. They also almost get caught trying on the clothes belonging to an NFL groupie. Finally, after having to clean a complete pig-sty of a room, Anne Marie gets fired for confronting one of the ball players and showing him how to throw a condom in the garbage and not miss. The other two girls can't quit because they all need the money.
So now Anne-Marie's got no job, she's stressing out because there's a big surf competition in a week that's her last real chance, and she knows she's dealing with a serious phobia of wiping out badly and getting hurt again. Just to top things off she breaks one of her surf boards trying to relax at the beach that afternoon.
But one of the footballers comes to the rescue! The handsome young quarterback approaches Anne Marie and apologizes for his guys getting her fired, then asks for surf lessons. She blows him off until her two friends remind her that you usually get paid money for surf lessons. They chase down the quarterback, Matt, and he agrees to pay the same rate the hotel charges - $150 an hour. The girls are elated, money troubles over for now.
The next day Anne Marie, her sister, and her two girlfriends give the footballers surf lessons. It's hilarious because three of these guys are behemoths and aren't afraid to make fools of themselves. The quarterback isn't bad for his first time, and he and Anne Marie are getting along very well. She goes with him back to his room at the hotel to get her money, he pre-pays for a whole week of lessons, and she almost sleeps with him.
The next day Anne Marie's roommate Eden, her best bud, wants to help Anne Marie practice for the big surf competition. Eden's totally invested in Anne Marie's success because Eden's a pretty good surfer herself, but she's always known Anne Marie had much more potential.
Anne Marie agrees to practice, but then deliberately stays late teaching Matt how to surf and blows off the practice time so she won't have to think about the competition and her fears. Eden's ticked, Anne Marie sleeps with Matt that night.
The next morning the two girlfriends show up to clean Matt's room at the hotel and find Anne Marie in his bed. She and Eden have it out and Anne Marie agrees to practice that afternoon. Practice goes well, Anne Marie's surfing the big waves, with Eden towing her into the surf using a jet-ski to save time, but then she gets crushed by a big wave just as she was feeling confident. This stokes Anne Marie's fears and she quits practice, Eden and the upcoming competition, and goes running to Matt's arms for comfort.
Matt's pampers Anne Marie for a day or two, then they're supposed to go to a team dinner together. Anne Marie's cleaned herself up, brushed her hair, and looks tres sophisticae in a dress Matt bought her. Her room-mates remind Anne Marie of what she already knows - Matt's only on the island for another couple days, where does she think this fling could go?
At the team dinner Anne Marie overhears some of the other players' wives/girlfriends talking trash about her and she leaves the dinner. Matt chases after her and Anne Marie tells him all her fears about the competition, her future, her sister's future. Matt tells her that they may only have known each other a couple days, but he thinks she's very special even if their relationship may not last any longer, and she'll always blame herself if she doesn't go in the competition.
The next day's the big surf competition - Pipeline. Anne Marie makes up with Eden and declares she's scared, but going to try hard. All the big name pro women surfers are there, while Anne Marie's the local wild card who got a buy into the event. The surf is big and serious - perfect conditions to look good for the judges or get crushed badly under a wave.
The surfers go out two at a time and can take as many waves as they want for 20 minutes, without any help from jet-skis, etc. The judges score each wave they surf, and surfer keeps the best score of all her waves. Of the two surfers per heat, the one with the best score moves on to the next round. There are no penalties for wiping out, but if the surfer picks her waves badly, she may never get a good run to show her stuff.
Anne Marie's turn comes and she only takes one wave, chickening out of the others, but she surfs well. The next wave she tries crushes her and she almost wacks her head on a rock again. The safety crew pulls her out of the surf, but her one run was good enough to win her heat.
In the recovery tent, Matt talks her up, telling her that it won't get any worse. Anne Marie reminds him she could die, Matt reminds her it would be stupid to back out after coming this far, and he knows she can do it.
In Anne Marie's next heat she's up against Keala Kennelly, a big name surfer (playing herself). Keala surfs well, but Anne Marie's chickening out of all the waves, refusing to commit. After she gets several good runs on her own score card, Keala swims out and confronts Anne Marie, asking why she isn't surfing.
Keala coaches Anne Marie into taking a wave, and Anne Marie wipes out on the tough surf, but doesn't get crushed as badly this time. She swims back out and Keala coaches her into another wave, which Anne Marie surfs perfectly. It's both a fabulous and difficult wave, but Anne Marie surfs it text-book, scoring the first perfect 10 of the day.
Keala wins the heat because Anne Marie only surfed the one wave, but back on the beach it's congratulations from the crowd, Eden, Penny and Matt, and including a number of pro-surfing sponsors who want to offer Anne Marie a sponsorship.
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