Surfwise rolls along like a surfing version of VH1's "Behind the Music." The traveling Paskowitz family – led by its iconoclastic patriarch, Dorian – lived like rock stars. The eight brothers and one sister bounced from one beach to the next. They never attended school and were always searching for the perfect wave. They traveled around the world and became a cult phenomenon. As Navah Paskowitz, the clan's lone sister, puts it, "It just seemed like we were constantly on vacation."
And then something tricky happened. They grew up.
Well, more or less, and this is where Doug Pray's fascinating documentary gets as complicated as its subject matter in chronicling the rise and fall of an American family. Like an almost perfect wave, Surfwise comes surging forth as it builds into a monstrous rolling curl, crushes down into a foamy splash, and then flattens out into a peaceful, almost anticlimactic finish.
No sooner does Pray paint Dorian Paskowitz as a possible visionary than he turns the tide, so to speak, on Dorian's fathering skills. Dorian's a movie subject unto himself, and by the first third of the film we learn his story: A promising physician, he dropped out of society in the 1950s to devote his life to surfing and sex. As archival media artifacts confirm, he introduced surfing to Israel. He developed a deeply spiritual existence based on a healthy diet, exercise, meditation and sex. ("Fucking to me," he maintains, "is the word of God.") It was a lifestyle that he believed fit in perfectly with his Jewish upbringing.
After he met his third wife, Juliette, he set about building a family and traveling the world in their beat-up, 24-foot camper. As soon as each child was old enough, they learned to surf – to the point that many of them were championship caliber.
Thanks in part to Dorian's George Reeves-like build and Juliette's Mexican heritage, the children were all beautiful, tanned and precocious. They seemed like rock stars in the making, an Osmond family for the surfer set. (Several, in fact, later entered the music business.)
The daily routine was fairly simple: The kids were left to their own devices until lunchtime, and most of the day was dedicated to surfing. Despite their vagabond existence, they stayed as clean as possible, though they often shared clothing. Dorian's obsession with a healthy diet, and their meager budget, meant lots of fish and a gruel-like concoction including rice.
Surfwise is at its best and worst when Pray examines Dorian's maniacal rule of his children about two-thirds of the way through the film. For long stretches, we hear the story from the children's side. There was the yelling, the beating (often for not surfing), the nightly intercourse with Juliette in full view and sound of the kids, the constant moving, the complete avoidance of any kind of formal education or structure beyond Dorian's perspective.
David, the oldest and most compelling of the brood, at first enjoyed being Dorian's enforcer with the children. He saw how idyllic their lifestyle could be until he realized how much they were being repressed. "I feel horribly guilty playing that role," says David, now 48. "I think we'd be a family right now if there wasn't such a militant hand on the whole thing."
The family dynamic crumbled as each child entered adulthood, some leaving, others staying with Dorian, who, in the film, is absent for long periods while the children give their side. It's not until the movie's end, in which Dorian calls for a 10-year truce to family hostilities in the form of a reunion, that we sense any guilt on his part for the way his kids have turned out.
That final scene, as forced as it might seem, still strikes a chord for every family that has suffered its own fissures – which just might be every family I can think of. In this respect, Surfwise is as familiar as water itself.