SurfwiseWritten and directed by Doug PrayStarring Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and familyRated R*7.5*
Goes well with: Crazy Love, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Billy the Kid
Is blood really thicker than water? How about seawater? It's not an unreasonable question, actually, considering the Paskowitz family, a well-known clan of surfers and the subjects of Doug Pray's gnarly new documentary.
At the film's center is the patriarch, Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, an octogenarian who lived a fairly typical early life—two unsuccessful marriages, an unsatisfying medical practice fueled by a Stanford education—and lived only to make his way to the beach to go surfing. In the mid-1950s, he trekked to Israel to hone his personal philosophy, which he was able to put into practice after returning to the U.S. and marrying Juliette, a nice Jewish girl. The tenets of that lifestyle? Eat entirely naturally. Have sex every single night. Procreate. A lot. Eventually, this translated into Doc and Juliette living in a 24-foot camper with their nine kids (eight boys), driving from beach to beach, wave to wave. The kids were sent into the ocean instead of the schools, and the family eventually founded the Paskowitz Surf Camp, which has trained aspiring riders at its location just north of Pacific Beach for more than 30 years.
By the time the kids started leaving the nest, they were incredibly close-knit, ridiculously healthy, generally good-looking and incredible surfers. All nine Paskowitz kids go on camera to describe their unconventional upbringing, and it sounds appealing, at least in theory. No one is fueled by materialistic desires, and all of the children, even though they had to struggle for attention, knew how well-loved they were. Money wasn't a family concern—even when they were down to their last dime, the surfing safari was enough to keep them going.
Of course, there's something romantic and attractive about living life outside the mainstream. But Pray's documentary sneaks up on you. Just when you start to wish your own parents had tuned in, turned on and dropped out, he shows you the tragedy of the Paskowitz kids, who seem to be in awe of the way they were raised. Those healthy surfer kids eventually grew up and left the nest, even though their parents wished they would stay together forever. And that alternative upbringing didn't prepare them to be much more than, as one Paskowitz puts it, rock stars or bums, or just surfers. Going out into the real world was culture shock, and each child has had to maneuver his or her way through an unfamiliar existence. That doesn't mean that they've had no success, but certain opportunities, such as college, were automatically out of reach.
Each kid seems divided about his or her feelings toward Doc. On one hand, there was a time when they were in a state of superior health, when family was all-important, when the measure of success was how well one did on the water. But age and life experience has given each of them a different perspective on those years spent in the camper, and several feel that time was more about their dad running from his weird obsessions with the rest of the world, rather than helping them grow up to live in it. There's a great deal of bitterness and estrangement, and some kids still feel scarred from hearing their mom and dad get it on, loudly, every single night. And it's not that the Paskowitz kids necessarily want a traditional, mainstream lifestyle, but they seem to realize that even if they wanted that, they weren't given the tools to live that way.
Still, family's funny. And parenting is incredibly challenging. Doc was undoubtedly trying to do right by his kids, to offer them the best in terms of food and love and health. So it seems terribly tragic how disconnected some of these kids are from one another, because the unyielding unity of the family was what kept them all going for so many years. It's hard not to feel emotionally involved when they have a bury-the-hatchet reunion at the end of the film.
From a nature vs. nurture perspective, one wonders if his kids are screwed up because of, or in spite of, Doc Paskowitz. Pray, the director, never passes judgment on Doc. That's a wise move. He reserves that task instead for the progeny and the film's viewers.