Kids used to want to run away with the circus. Youth from the last three decades or so might have been more tempted by the lifestyle of the Paskowitz clan, which spent years roaming in their 24-foot camper, suffering no education more formal than that provided by surfing the world’s waves. Of course, this can’t be as idyllic as it sounds. As the latest docu from Doug Pray (“Hype!” “Scratch”) details, it wasn’t, by a longshot. “Surfwise” should get plenty of ink as the latest nonfiction portrait of a weird family. Appeal to surf-flick devotees provides another hook for theatrical exposure.
Strapping young M.D. Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz virtually introduced surfing to Israel before trying to settle down with two failed first marriages and a stint of high-flying careerism — “the most miserable part of my life,” he now says. Then he met gorgeous Juliette, and decided their path would be on the open road.
A series of decrepit used campers was home to the bed-sharing family as one birth followed another for a decade. Taking only low-to-no-pay temp doctoring posts among the poor, keeping everyone on a strict health diet (one sib accurately describes the usual meal as “gruel”), preferring to have as few monetary or material assets as possible, Doc raised his brood as free as birds — in theory.
In actuality, we gradually learn, he could be a violent, mood-swinging disciplinarian and publicity hound whose notions of loyalty were better suited to military than family life. His insistence that the kids be kept isolated from the standard social norms he had rejected only in adulthood — proper schooling, peer exposure, stable community — left them poorly equipped to handle the world when each finally, painfully, broke away. The junior Paskowitzes then discovered they had no practical training, no college-qualifying education, no experience with the simplest financial self-preservation.
Recrimination is all the juicier for being held back until “Surfwise’s” second half. Early on, the seemingly happy family is seen as media darlings winning myriad surfing competitions in plenty of archival footage.
With so many personalities on tap — including disapproving relatives and admiring surf-world pros — it’s not surprising that the pic either short-changes or skims over the adult troubles of some siblings. More fully etched is Doc, exasperatingly self-involved yet not incapable of seeing his own errors of judgment; and Juliette, still a free spirit despite her deep maternal instincts. (Even now, neither seems bothered that their loud nightly lovemaking in the camper mortified inches-away kids.)
Somewhat forced happy ending aside, the pic holds together well. The editorial package is sharp. Soundtrack makes use of enjoyably diverse cuts, some by the Paskowitzes themselves — aspiring rock-stardom being one frequent career path for folks who in some respects remain permanently stalled adolescents.