Text by Assistant Editor Ryan Bradley
Photograph courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Surfwise is not a documentary film about surfing. For this reason, it’s the best movie about surfing to come out in a good long while. Confused? Fair enough. Let me try to explain.
Surfwise is, in the most classic Tolstoyian sense, a film about an unhappy family. The patriarch, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, leaves a successful medical practice in Honolulu, Hawaii in the late 1950s and, with his new bride, embarks on a nomadic surf-bum lifestyle throughout North America—though for the most part he sticks to Southern and Baja California, where the surf is good and the people less uptight. During this long strange trip Doc Paskowitz and Juliette have nine children. The whole gang lives on the beach in a 24-foot camper. They surf all the time, eat natural food, never go to school, and live a utopian, off-the-grid life. Or not. Daddy Doc is a dictator. Juliette is constantly pregnant and overworked. And the nine kids inevitably grow up and realize that life is not a beach.
And then Surfwise gets really interesting. The psychology and family dynamics of all nine grownup Paskowitz kids is explored—deftly, and often devastatingly—by director Doug Pray. Pray’s previous work includes the ultra-fresh doc Scratch (it’s about DJs), and Surfwise is filled with plenty of fast cuts and fast music. Rare is the full, slow, beautifully ridden wave. But no matter, Pray is genius at getting surfer dudes and dudettes (Doc and Juliette had eight guys and one girl, who is now an SUV-driving homemaker in a Los Angeles suburb—take that hippy parents!) to come off as insightful, smart, self-aware adults struggling with a materialistic world they were not prepared for because dear old Dad was too busy being stoked.
Surfing, specifically the health and spiritual fulfillment one gets from riding a wave, is what has dictated Doc Paskowitz’s life; a life that is at turns both beautiful and ugly. When the film was made Doc was 85-years-old and still surfing every day, but was estranged from many of his children. It is Paskowitz’s unyielding belief in surfing that rips his family apart. It is also surfing that pulls them back together (or is it the fact that a Paskowitz co-produced the film?).
Surfwise is the first surf film I’m aware of that fully explores what it is to be stoked—a word that attempts to describe the ineffable high of riding a wave. All great surf films get at this in some way. In Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer two buddies try to be perpetually stoked by following the changing seasons southward. One of my favorite recent surf films, Thicker Than Water, takes a similar approach by focusing on the blissful comradeship found among surfers. But Surfwise sets itself apart by exploring the darker aspects of being stoked. Surfers get angry, even violent, protecting waves they claim ownership over. A few films have portrayed surfers as crazy extremists (one of the best is, no joke, Point Break) but Paskowitz is a rare character indeed—thoughtful and opinionated, his philosophy tends to teeter between brilliance and insanity. And best of all, he’s for real.
Surfwise opens Friday, May 9 in New York and in select cities thereafter. Check surfwisefilm.com/ for details.
- Nat Geo Expeditions