Reviewing surf films is a fraught affair. Surfing feature films that is - mainstream releases that have a surfing theme. Suspension of disbelief may be a requisite for all films but surfing films make special demands upon their audience: You must believe that surface chop can disappear in an instant, that every surf gang has a quasi-mystical mentor, and that life's Great Lessons can only be taught in the surf.
Yes, Hollywood has dished out some turkeys and it's impossible to ignore those earlier films while watching subsequent efforts. The antennae are finely tuned as we pay critical attention to how the filmmakers portray surfers and the surfing lifestyle. It's the burden that every surf filmmaker must bear until someone gets it right.
Drift is the latest surf film to carry the burden, and by weight of subject matter it's one of the most ambitious yet. It tells the story of two brothers who inadvertently create the foundations of the modern surf industry. It's a fictional tale overlaying a heavily documented and equally heavily romanticised story – the birth of the first surf companies.
After fleeing their violent, alcoholic father the Kelly brothers, along with their mother, find themselves on the other side of the continent in a small logging and farming town. As outsiders they have to rely on their smarts and their fists to survive, particularly older brother Andy who becomes the father figure. Both fall into the surf community and younger brother Jimmy proves to be a prodigy winning local contests and gaining attention in the fledgling surf scene.
Jimmy appears destined to join Andy in the sawmill. It is, after all, 1972 and surfing is largely a recreational pursuit with a fragmented cottage industry and few professional surfers, all of whom come from Hawaii or California. The only way for surfers to indulge their surfing and support themselves is to go into business, and so the Kelly brothers do.
The Kelly brothers story closely parallels those of Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong. They are tales that have long been mythologised in Australian surfing featuring rogue upstarts that flouted convention and sometimes the law to lay the seed for a multi-billion dollar industry.
Forces seek to hinder the Kelly brothers new company, Drift. There's the obligatory police harassment, a blinkered bank manager, and an internationally-renowned surf photographer, JB, played by Sam Worthington, who rolls into town toting a new counter cultural ethos.
"You can't beat the man by becoming the man," says JB and a subtle wedge is driven between the impressionable Jimmy and the hard-working Andy.
Of all the characters in Drift it is JB who captures the early 70s zeitgeist. Using a combination of principle and pragmatism he's carved out a niche that allows him to stay on the road venturing to exotic locales: G'land, Hawaii, California. And although he leads a contradictory lifestyle he's drawn to their business representing the surfing spirit that was both repelled and attracted to early surf commerce.
"How does he know if he's any good?" asks Jimmy as he and JB watch an unknown surfer enjoy a solo session in one of the films better scenes. Historical perspective needs to be provided as Drift is set when the ideas of competition and being the best fell out of fashion with many surfers. Indeed, Surfer magazine, the largest surfing magazine in the world, scrapped their famous Surfer Poll from 1970 to 1978.
As the company grows pressure is applied and the story borrows from the 'unofficial' version of company expansion. The one you wont read about in fawning company accounts. Also, as the intrigue gathers and the pace increases the story moves inward, away from the surfing theme to tell a more universal story about familial ties.
All well and good thus far, at least for the non-surfing audience. What say us surfers? The story might be sound, but what about the on-screen representation and portrayal?
The film nails the look and language of surfers but unfortunately my antennae were twitching at a number of critical junctures, all of them during surf scenes. Although it has the best surfing I've seen in a feature film, and, save for the last scene, excellent continuity in the surfing footage, there are some patchy moments. An implausible rescue near the start may have some people wondering about modern lifeguarding techniques. A similar scene is duplicated near the end.
Also, while the movie is a homage to ingenuity and down home creativity a few tow surfers in Hawaii will dispute the accuracy of the big wave scene. It's filmed at Cow Bombie and features amazing footage, there's no question about that, but it left me sitting in my seat thinking, 'Really? Did they really have to include that?'
The criticism may sound pedantic, yet up until that point the story was roughly true to the historical account so the deviation was conspicuous. I imagine it's a concession to a non-surfing audience, as are the rescue scenes mentioned above, so perhaps they're best viewed as small compromises that helped to get the film over the line. Like their fictional protagonist JB the filmmakers have used a mix of principle and pragmatism to achieve their goal.
In any case the surfing scenes, which are all shot across Western Australia's south-west in pumping waves, trump any shortcomings the film may have. Drift is a thoroughly enjoyable film about an extraordinary time in Australian surfing.