Movie review: Swimming against the tide in 'Surfwise'

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2008 - 4:32 PM

The family that surfs together grows up dysfunctional in "Surfwise."

In the surfing world, the Paskowitz clan is like the Carters in country music or the Earnhardts in car racing: a legendary dynasty that endured hard times while bringing their art form to a broader public. Now they're the subject of a riveting documentary that focuses more on weird family dynamics than big waves.

The patriarch, Dorian (Doc) Paskowitz, a Stanford-educated physician, lived a conventional 1950s life of professional accomplishment, marriage (twice) and quiet dissatisfaction. He was a public health officer in Hawaii, so respected that there was a movement to draft him as a candidate for governor. But he was a nonconformist at heart, a surfing enthusiast long before it was cool and temperamentally unsuited to the buttoned-down certitudes of the Eisenhower era.

He resigned his responsibilities, married Juliette (after conducting an international quest for the most sexually compatible partner) and fathered a band of 'boarders -- eight sons and a daughter. He was determined to raise his tribe as "naturally" as possible outside mainstream society. That meant nomadic rambles along the West Coast in a cramped camper van, raw foods, endless surfing, no school for the kids, no money and no boundaries. The media profiled the family, who became renowned as examples of groovy independence, and they became celebrity surfers, running a successful California surfing school.

"Surfwise" is skeptical, however, about the long-term effects of Doc's bohemian family experiment, finding strains of idealism and narcissism inextricably intertwined.

The now-grown children recall trying to sleep in their shared beds while Dad and Mom had loud sex every night nearby. One calls their rearing "being raised as wolves," while another sibling calls their strict health-food diet "gruel." The eldest son sings a bitterly critical song he composed about Doc, his eyes brimming with tears of rage.

Doc, now in his mid-80s, remains happily married to Juliette, and his nine kids, despite their eccentric upbringing, are mostly living contented, productive adult lives. Most look back with a mix of wonderment, affection and disappointment. Doc hasn't mellowed. In a group-huggy reunion at the climax, we see that he can still effortlessly crush one overweight son's ego by pitting him against his fitter brother. But as one puts it, "a flawed family that sticks together is better than no family at all."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

  • SURFWISE

    ★★★ out of four stars

    Rating: R for language and sexual material.

    Theater: Lagoon.

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