June 12, 2008

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Surfwise (R)
A Stanford-educated doctor decides to chuck the professional life and hit the open road with his wife and (eventually) nine children in Surfwise, a documentary about the Paskowitz family of famous surfers.

If youíve ever had any hippie daydream about ditchng the suburban life for some kind of adventure-filled experience ó getting back to the land to farm organic tomatoes, putting the kids on the boat to sail around the world for a year ó watch this movie first. It gives you both the rosy fantasy and the big messy reality of living off the grid. Dorian ďDocĒ Paskowitz (who is now in his mid-80s) tried life as a respected, respectable doctor but, after a few failed marriages and some serious existential angst, he gave it up and packed Juliette, who became his new wife, into a car and started driving. Eventually, they were married, she gave birth to eight sons and one daughter and the family spent their lives in a sardine can of a camper (24 feet, according to the filmís press information), driving across North America to catch waves and follow the tenets of Docís surf-for-better-health lifestyle. The kids lived like puppies, as the siblings explain in this documentary, now all adults who more often than not seem to live various forms of very ordinary suburban existence. They slept in bunches, sometimes on the camper floor, and spent days running wild on the beach. The good side of a life spent in the waves and trapped in a trailer with a baseball teamís worth of siblings is a kind of closeness unimaginable to your modern nobody-eats-dinner-at-the-same-time family and an education about the world that comes from personal experiences. The down side, the grown-up Paskowitzes explain, is that that kind of education doesnít get you very far if your dream is to go to medical school or even to just a high school prom. The kids became surfing dynamos but had to learn about the non-hippie world the hard way, with lots of disappointments and bitterness about their upbringing and about their fatherís strictness. In fact, as we eventually learn, the relationships between the sibilings themselves went through some bumpy years.

We learn lots of other things too, like Docís opinions about sex ó as it pertains to a healthy marriage and a healthy society. The Holocaust makes an appearance in our travels through Docís psyche as well ó despite being a young man living in America during World War II, he seems to suffer from serious survivorís guilt. We get an explanation of his strict views about diet and how it led him to author books on the subject of surfing and health and how his love of the sport (and perhaps need of cash) led him to start a surf camp. (Google Doc Paskowitz and you find links to his Web site along with a site for the camp ó itís fascinating stuff.)

What happens when you follow your dream? Weird stuff is this movieís answer. From their interviews in the film, the Paskowitz children seem to at once marvel at their dadís accomplishment and look back aghast at the opportunities he kept from them. Perhaps the best measure of his parental fitness is that all of his children seem (at least in the film) more or less happy, with hardships and triumphs but on average more success than failure at their lives. Itís absolutely riveting to listen to them reminisce about their adventure from the kidsí point of view and equally engrossing to get a bit of surf history. B+

Rated R for language and some sexual material. Written and directed by Doug Pray, Surfwise is an hour and 33 minutes long and is distributed by Magnolia Pictures.