Surfwise

2008, Movie, R, 92 mins

Review

SURFWISE
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Chalk up another family for Leo Tolstoy and Philip Larkin file: The Paskowitz family is unhappy in its own unique way and mum and dad f**cked them up -- they didn't mean to, but they did.

Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz was born on March 3, 1921 in Galveston, Texas, but found his calling – surfing -- in San Diego, where his family moved when he was a teenager. Paskowitz attended Stanford University, became a medical doctor and appeared headed for a successful career in public health administration and perhaps even politics. But Paskowitz hated the mainstream rat race and loved riding waves, eventually reshaping his life to accommodate a world view rooted in such then-radical concepts as mindful eating, sustainable living and mind-body harmony. After two failed marriages, Paskowitz discovered holistic, guilt-free sex to his world view, and found his soul mate in his third and final wife, Juliette: They eventually raised nine children -- eight sons and a daughter -- in a succession of 24-foot campers, moving from beach to beach in search of the perfect wave and ruled by their father's dogmatic ideas about clean living, sexual openness and the evils of money. Doc Paskowitz admired the natural grace and holistic integrity of animals and tried to raise his children accordingly; but as Salvador – the next-to-youngest son – observes, being raised like apes is fine until you have to deal with people who weren't: When they boys left home, he says, they found that women "didn't want to be married to animals."

Documentarian Doug Pray's clear-eyed and even-handed portrait of the Paskowitz clan is provocative in the best sense of the word: It both recognizes the ideological prescience of Doc Paskowitz's off-the-grid life and acknowledges the inevitable fallout. He gives Paskowitz enough screen time to hang himself; his ideas about freedom and family are as narcissistic and self-serving as they are free-spirited, and his assertion that his family is a thoroughly conventional one is either disingenuous or self-deluded. Pray parses the difference between what outsiders saw – a handsome, healthy family living an enviable, gypsy-like existence, dedicated to surfing as a pure expression of harmony with nature – and the more complicated upbringing the now-adult Paskowitz children remember through their reminiscences, which never degenerate into whining. They all know their childhoods made them the creative, fiercely individualistic people they are (eldest son David suggests that they grew up like "nine only children"), but also left them woefully unprepared to live in mainstream society. And yet one still concludes that "a flawed family that sticks together is better than no family at all," and after ten years of estrangement, all accept Doc's invitation to attend a family reunion in Hawaii: Few documentaries parse the complexities of family dynamics so effectively. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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