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The children of the Paskowitz family — all nine of them — grew up in a camper, chasing the waves. This movie is about how such an upbringing works, whether it can work, and whether it’s worth trying.

A Different American Dream

The Paskowitzes were raised on surfing
The Paskowitzes were raised on surfing

“Doc” Paskowitz was always a successful lad, and he even became a Stanford doctor. But he was always a little hung up inside. After college he had something of a sexual awakening. While he was fucking his way across Europe, he met Ms. Right. They came back to America and by the time they were done they had nine children.

But Doc’s awakening was more than sexual; it changed his life. Rather than raise his kids in the traditional American way, with a job, a house, and public schools, he decided he was going to take them surfing as often as possible, driving from one spot to the next in their camper van, following whichever wind blew him strongest at the moment.

Director Doug Pray tells their story in three acts. Without getting too specific, let’s just say they are childhood, college years, and present day.

Pray for Satisfaction

Doug Pray’s documentaries ( Scratch, Big Rig) have long impressed me with their surprising and fluid story arcs. Surfwise does not disappoint. The first 30 minutes introduce us to the Paskowitz’s Bohemian lifestyle. Every kid who’s ever ditched school to play outside will be envious of their fun-chasing upbringing.

But 30 minutes is about all I was interested in. And just when I thought the movie couldn’t have anything else to say, Pray introduces a new wrinkle that changes the entire course of the story. The same thing happens again after about 60 minutes: the story plays itself out and then Pray introduces another new wrinkle.

Ironically, the film’s biggest disappointment is its perfect ending. As the movie progressed, I predicted what the ending “ought” to be. I didn’t know whether it would happen in front of Pray’s cameras or not, but there was an obvious ending to the characters’ story. What I hadn’t predicted was how anticlimactic such an ending would be. (Spoilers ahead: stop now if you’ve yet to see Surfwise.)

The problem is that the movie goes in three different directions, and none of them point toward the ending. The movie is really about the Paskowitzes interesting lifestyle. Act 1 tells us how cool that lifestyle it is; act 2 introduces a dark side; and act 3 explores the long-term consequences. The movie’s conclusion ought to be a summary of whether such a lifestyle is good or bad; whether the children would choose it for their own kids, and what they would do if they had it all to do over again. The “perfect ending” — the family reunion scene is undoubtedly important to the characters, but is a distraction from the point of the film.

More importantly, the entire movie up to the reunion is people talking intimately to Pray and to us, one at a time. They are free to talk about their family without any restrictions. The older brother sings his song about his father directly and intensely into the camera; can you imagine him doing that if even one of his siblings were in the room?

Then the reunion happens, and suddenly the characters don’t belong to us anymore, they’re back with their family. We’re now just spectators, not confidantes. Unfortunately, it is such a big and important event to the characters that Pray has to include it. But it breaks the pace of the movie.

Recommended

Still, Surfwise is a very good documentary, thanks again to Pray’s great sense of storytelling and editing.

Whatever you think of a new-Bohemian lifestyle, you’ll find something to ponder in Surfwise.