Not quite the Von Trapp family of surfing...
[This is a new type of "review" that I'm trying out. Less criticism or focus on the technical aspects, production, or even plot of the film, and more focus on my personal thoughts on its themes and how they relate to my life. Essentially, what I took home from the theater - such is my reason for going in the first place.]
I assumed Surfwise was a documentary about a family of surfers, seen above. That is all. I wasn't really intrigued, but I went anyway. "Oh, here we go," I thought during the first 15 minutes. "Another Stacy Peralta-styled documentary on surfing. Haven't we already seen this in Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid?"
Then something remarkable happened. Surfwise quite suddenly turned out to not be about surfing at all - and then it turned out to be one of the best movies of the year.
Did your parents raise you right? Think about it, but don't settle on an answer. There is no answer. Everyone has a different definition of "right", and chances are yours is even different from your parents. But for the sake of argument let's assume some commonly accepted traits that would come as a result of "good parenting": responsibility, respect, resilience, determination, self-efficacy, motivation, etc. Easy enough to list, but that's not where it ends. How do you as a parent go about instilling these characteristics into your children? Again, there is no answer, and even if there were, the number of variable factors (environment, class, culture) ensure that no one method is appropriate for every family.
Dorian Paskowicz, however, thought he had found the perfect solution - by not only controlling those factors and avoiding social norms, but by completely removing his family from society. No home, no money, and no schooling. Just spending time as a family traveling around the world, nine kids and two adults "living" in a 24-foot camper for almost two decades. A grainy porridge was breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Dorian and his wife had sex in the same room as their children every night. Music and reverent Judaism provided the rhythm of family life. Beatings and a military mindset were commonplace, crying was not.
The one place the Paskowicz family did interact with the rest of the world was, ironically, out in the ocean. Surfing was a daily part of life and, from contest winnings and surf instruction, their only source of income (which they immediately rid themselves of). The family eventually opened a surf camp near San Onofre, CA, and each of the kids left the camper life as they grew into adulthood.
And here is where we find out if Dorian Paskowicz's method "worked."
Or rather, we don't. The kids are estranged from each other, and from their parents. They struggle with a sudden exposure to drugs and alcohol. They have trouble finding work and are pained by unrealized dreams and motivations as a consequence of never having gone to school. They've never lived in society.
There is much, much more to this story, but the heart of Surfwise really lives in that impossible-to-answer question: were the Paskowicz children helped or harmed by their socially deprived childhood? Keep in mind I'm speaking in relative terms and within the context of a "typical" American upbringing.
Director Doug Pray frames the film in a way that some would consider manipulative, but I thought was just fine. We're led to believe the kids had a wonderful, loving, carefree and worldly young lives. As the layers are stripped away, however, and we get more of the story from the now-adult children, the skeletons in the closet come tumbling out. At this point I became upset with Dorian Paskowicz, even though I knew I couldn't ultimately judge anything he did as "wrong".
Raising a family in a contrarian way is fine, and in fact, I hope one day to raise my kids outside of the typical social norms. But where do you draw the line? Let's talk about school, for example. I went to public schools my whole life (excluding college and grad school, but those don't count). Part of me thinks public schools suffer from poor teaching, impractical curricula and potentially dangerous peer pressure. But the rest of me knows that the social savvy kids get from going to these public schools is invaluable. There are pros and cons, but even in terms of home schooling, I find Paskowicz negligent. He wasn't actually "home schooling", and truly, all the evidence I need is the heartwrenching frustration shared by some of his kids. One wanted to be a doctor, for example, but was so far behind that he was still trying to achieve his GED in his 20's. He gave up his dream, and now he literally flips burgers at a fast-food joint.
What about life lessons on work or responsibility? In trying to teach his kids that they should work to live and live to work, and that they should avoid consumerism and American buying habits, Dorian Paskowicz almost put their well-being at risk. Deliberately living your life on hand-outs and gambles is not what I would consider responsible parenting. Sure, other cultures "live off the land", but they cultivate it, and for the most part, they do it out of necessity and not choice. The Paskowicz kids reported being malnourished and not even having enough clothing to wear on a regular basis. Lacking for these things may not have had any long term consequences on their lives, but in the short term it could have led to any number of problems that, again, could have been avoided had Dorian Paskowicz put his children before himself. As far as I'm concerned, if you deliberately bear nine children, you ought to meet their basic needs as much as your resources allow.
Surfwise offers a fascinating case study of a typical American family that took the road never traveled. Dorian Paskowicz was the man driving the camper on that road, and he can be equally thought of as a free-spirited and family-focused father of nine, or a paranoid king lording over his subjects and deliberately insulating them from the rest of society, with no plan for helping them assimilate to the outside world. He's both and neither; some of the Paskowicz children resent their father, while at least one of them has set out with his family and a camper of their own.
I could continue thinking and writing about all the questions raised by Surfwise, but I'll stop because as with all movies, it's best that you see it and process it on your own terms. Your definition of and experience with family is entirely your own, and different moments of this documentary will resonate with you (speaking of moments, the scene in which eldest son David is singing into the camera at his home is as emotionally raw as any other this year - including those in Young@Heart). See it with some other people and find out where the conversation takes you and if any of it relates to your own life experience. What will you take home?