The story of the enterprising Kelly brothers and how they ignited an Australian surfing and surfwear revolution is such an irresistible underdog story that, if it weren’t true, someone would have to make it up. Which is effectively what the makers of “Drift” have done, cobbling together bits and pieces of the humble origins of surf brands like Quiksilver and Rip Curl into a mostly fictional narrative that manages to get a fair bit right about early 1970s surf culture when it isn’t trafficking in the hoariest of David-vs.-Goliath cliches. After wiping out at the Oz box office in May, the pic gets a token theatrical release Stateside Aug. 2, but looks to catch most of its waves on the VOD pipeline.
A passion project for producer-star Myles Pollard and co-star Sam Worthington (who was key in securing the pic’s $9.9 million budget), “Drift” opens with a black-and-white prologue set in 1960 Sydney, where the teenage Andy Kelly (Sean Keenan) and his younger brother, Jimmy (Kai Arbuckle), flee with their mother, Kat (Robyn Malcolm), from a de rigueur drunken/abusive dad. When their car breaks down just outside the coastal town of Margaret River and its beckoning waves, the groms convince mum it’s a sign from God (or at least the surf gods), and so they put down stakes in the sleepy Western Australia burg.
A decade passes and the pic switches to color, with Andy (now played by Pollard) now toiling away at the local mill while Kat struggles to make ends meet as a seamstress. But between them, they can’t quite keep up with the mortgage payments and the bank (portrayed here in the same looming, menacing way it was in Depression-era Hollywood movies) is forever threatening to foreclose. Jimmy, meanwhile, now surfs rings around big bro, but has also fallen in with a local criminal element led by Miller (Steve Bastoni), a burly, snarling biker dude straight out of central casting.
The brothers’ great flash of inspiration arrives in the form of JB (Worthington), a Zen-preaching surf photographer and filmmaker who rolls into town direct from Hawaii, with an attractive female companion, Lani (Lesley-Ann Brandt), in tow. She catches both brothers’ eyes, but so does the strange neoprene costume she dons to surf the icy winter waters. Before you can say “wetsuit,” resourceful Kat has stitched up a couple of homemade knockoffs or the boys and they’re selling the things from the front lawn, along with handcrafted “short” boards shaped by Jimmy in the garage.
Needless to say, the stuff sells like hotcakes, and while the fussbudget bank manager still isn’t convinced, the Kellys are able to find an investor in the form of a recently retired mill worker (Maurie Ogden), allowing them to open up their own shop on Margaret River’s main drag. (The shop, christened Drift, sports a distinctive logo of a surfer inside a barrel, clearly inspired by Quiksilver’s iconic mountain-and-wave trademark.) Their worries, however, are far from over. Miller is still making trouble, and so are the local police, who have reason to suspect that the whole surf shop could be a front for a drug-running operation (a very real aspect of ‘70s surf culture that may explain why no real surf brand wanted its name associated with this movie).
Although wetsuits had existed since the 1950s and shorter, faster boards since the 1960s (largely due to the innovations of an Aussie shaper, Bob McTavish), it was the Australian surf manufacturers that managed to transform mom-and-pop enterprises into global lifestyle brands — a compelling narrative that might have made for a Down Under “Social Network,” but which feels homogenized in this telling by co-directors Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill (the latter of whom also wrote the script). The best scenes, mostly in the middle of the film, are the ones that focus with unusual specificity on the touch-and-go realities of running a small business. (When was the last time you heard the phrase “economies of scale” in a surf movie?) But the Kelly boys themselves feel less like composites of real people than like lazy writerly inventions designed to satisfy the various needs of the script, from their neatly contrasting yin/yang personalities to their rival vying for Lani’s affections.
So it’s a relief to have Worthington noodling around the edges of scenes, spouting canned hippie-stoner wisdom out of one side of his mouth and if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em practicality out of the other. It’s an inventive performance of the sort the actor (a Western Australia native) hasn’t been asked to give in his big Hollywood movies (“Avatar,” “Clash of the Titans”), and he takes “Drift” up a notch whenever he’s onscreen. He’s the only character who seems to have an inner life.
The real scene-stealer here, though, is the gorgeous surf photography of principal d.p. Geoffrey Hall and surf unit cameramen Rick Rifici and Rick Jankovich, on par with anything in “Big Wednesday” and “In God’s Hands.”