Walking into the theatre at Jam Factory on Monday night I found myself completely out of place at a typical Madman screening. Gone were the scruffy hipsters and excited middle-aged film reviewers that generally adorn their arthouse presentations. Instead there was the other kind of film reviewer – the everyman. Considering the nature of the documentary – two middle-aged pro surfers chasing waves – a room full of surfers was a great idea, if their rampant applause upon the closing of the film is to be believed. I, as a complete non-surfer, joined them in the applause but for entirely different reasons. To compare it to The Endless Summer is fruitless (and not wholly because they’re chasing during the winter season) because this is a different kind of documentary.
Gone are the romantic sunsets dipping behind rosy waves. They’re brutally replaced with cold, dangerous sheets of water that possess both beauty and horror for the two men at the middle of the film, Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones. We’re introduced to them as men far beyond their prime – Tom has two world titles and Ross is a pioneer in tow surfing. Now they’re a few kilos heavier (even if Tom is in great shape) and a little lighter in the hair department and they’re out to prove they’ve still got what it takes to surf these waves, whatever that means.
Fortunately the two men at the centre of all of this are typical larrikins. They take delight in stirring up their dog with a remote controlled helicopter and take great pride in their inability to mature sensibly. What is missing here though are the more personal and private moments of the two men to really give this film much needed depth. There are a couple of moments between Tom and his daughter but they’re too few and far between; Ross’ personal life is limited to a 2 second appearance of his son and nothing else. What could have been a rich storyline and a hint of character is thrown into the dust and we’re left with cardboard cutouts on surf boards. Nice guys, sure, but it’s not enough.
The use of 3D in a film of this nature is caught somewhere between Great Idea and Back To The Drawing Board. Personally speaking I’m still not entirely sold on the third dimension, unlike the studios and producers that are trying their damndest to convince us 2D is the fat loser that got rejected on formal night. Fortunately it’s employed here with staggering precision and adds real depth and weight to the water that takes up the centrepiece and lead character slots of the documentary.
That it was shot on 3D cameras and not simply encoded during post-production is a great move and a step in the right direction for the new film technique (unlike most uses of 3D that are just fancy lightshows, hello Alice in Wonderland). The problem it suffers from however is inherent in the nature of the piece – water on the lens. The first few times it occurs you’re tempted to wipe it off your glasses and each moment after that it causes a moment of brief disorientation. But these are minor, forgivable interruptions to the greatness it achieves elsewhere.
By the end it reveals its true nature as a documentary about the human spirit and the stubbornness to hold onto what makes us happy. Surfing language rules the film so don’t expect any deep moments but the little emotion Tom and Ross are willing to show us reinforces that these guys are born surfers and the day they stop climbing a board, they’ll die. Watching it with a close friend we both longed for the day when we find something that inspires them as much as surfing does.
[rating=3] ½ stars.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
Directed by: Justin McMillan, Chris Nelius
Starring: Tom Carroll and Ross Clark-Jones
Storm Surfers is playing in limited release nationally from August 14.