Contemporary surf films are often relegated to a genre of their own, left to be viewed only by an audience already immersed in beach culture and big waves. Drift, an Australian surf film from directors Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill, has largely slid under the radar, garnering generally mediocre reviews from the mainstream press. As a reviewer outside of the surf community, it’s easy to assume that Drift is just another surf movie with lots of hippies, drugs and police problems.
From it’s first frame, Drift proves that it’s something much better than that. The story of Kelly brothers Jimmy (Xavier Samuel) and Andy (Myles Pollard) and the birth of the global surf business is the subject of this beautifully shot film that matches stellar surf footage with terse, emotional scenes. It’s no surprise that the film did well at festivals in big-time surf cities such as Newport Beach, California and Rincón, Puerto Rico.
The film opens with a long black and white shot, zooming out from a television set to focus on the face of a drunken man who has passed out in his chair. A woman sneaks up behind him, coming into focus from the back of the frame. It’s 1960 in Sydney, and Kat Kelly (Robyn Malcolm) is leaving in the dead of night with her two teen boys. They make the long drive to southwest Australia to begin their new lives.
Jimmy and Andy start surfing the now-legendary waves of the southwest as soon as they arrive in their new home. After a young Andy (Sean Keenan) hurts his foot and nearly drowns while surfing, Jimmy takes over as the star surfer in the family. Driven by necessity, the brothers begin making their own surfboards. It doesn’t take long for other local surfers to notice the boards, especially when Jimmy wins an amateur surf competition.
Everything is going well for the Kelly brothers. Aside from a few minor run-ins with the local police, they lead a carefree lifestyle full of waves, girls and beer. It’s everything we expect from a surf movie, and it’s plenty of fun. But things get a lot more interesting – and quite a bit better – when eccentric surf cinematographer JB (Sam Worthington) and his friend’s daughter Lani (Lesley-Ann Brandt) roll into town in their psychedelically bright surf van.
JB and Lani are Americans on a cross-Australia surf road trip that could only have happened in the ‘70s. The Kelly brothers quickly befriend the new surf enthusiasts. Of course, and this is a bit predictable, they both have a thing for Lani. This is one of the film’s weakest points; it doesn’t add anything meaningful and makes the story seem like a much bigger cliché than it actually is. It’s not the acting that’s at fault here, though, it’s the writing.
Aside from the love drama, Drift develops an interesting story about how a small-time family business revolutionized a major global industry. Watching a story about the mavericks of surfing is a lot like watching a story about the mavericks of the Wild West. The lead characters are always likable, even when they’re doing questionable things. O’Neill, who also wrote the film, did an exceptional job of creating multidimensional, compelling characters.
One of the most interesting characters in the film is outlaw biker Miller (Steve Bastoni), who is uncomfortable with the hippy-surf counter culture taking over what he believes to be his town. For the Kelly brothers, run-ins with Miller are always a tense occasion. While they don’t welcome any association with the biker, they also can’t help but move in the same underground, counter-culture circles. Their friend and co-worker Gus (Aaron Glenane) walks a dangerous line between the two groups, eventually angering the biker.
Despite problems with Miller, the brothers open a successful surf shop out of their home. They make the boards; their mom sews the wetsuits. Local surfers flock to the shop and word quickly travels around South West Australia about the brothers’ boards. JB, who is older and ostensibly wiser, gives the brothers a lot of business advice, but as viewers we’re not sure of his motives. Things become especially murky after JB reveals that he sometimes smuggles pot onto airplanes in surfboards.
It’s not immediately apparent that this knowledge will have dire consequences. The film instead progresses from here as a story about the development of surfing, especially competitive surfing. JB, Andy and Kelly drive up and down the Australian coast selling boards and wetsuits. They’re living a surfing dream that some critics have accused of being too cliché to be any good, but it’s a short-sighted criticism. After all, it’s the Kelly brothers and their contemporaries who inspired the clichés in the first place.
While it’s full of joy, Drift is also full of struggle. The Kelly brothers are out of place in their conservative town. No banker wants to give them a loan and the police are suspicious of them. It’s the latter that becomes a real problem for the brothers just as their business booms. O’Neill handles these tensions well, crafting a wonderful family drama about how outsiders can break into the mainstream and recognize major cultural change.
The Blu-ray release of Drift includes minimal special features. The behind the scenes featurette on the disc is full of interesting information about the making of the film and the story of the Kelly brothers, but we wish we were offered more about them and their real-life business. It would also be nice to see greater focus on the film’s cinematography.