Surfing is as much about a person’s relationship to nature as it is about athleticism; it’s equal parts sport and mystery religion. That’s why surfing can seem all encompassing to its practitioners and impenetrable to outsiders—a risky activity favored by leisurely dudes who communicate in coded New Age beach-speak.
Surfing movies tackle this problem in one of two ways. The great ones, like John Milius’ Big Wednesday, turn a surfer’s relationship with the ocean into a metaphor for human experience across periods of cultural change. The mediocre ones, like the new Australian drama Drift, squeeze surfing scenes into conventional narratives, presuming that, because surfing looks exciting, any story related to surfing is inherently interesting.
Drift is set in the early ’70s, when surfing was being redefined by a series of technical innovations; boardshorts were out, shortboards were in. With the guidance of surfing photographer/guru Sam Worthington, small town brothers Myles Pollard and Xavier Samuel open up a surf shop that stocks newfangled gear. Their childhood friend Aaron Glenane shapes boards in the back, while mom Robyn Malcolm sews wetsuits in her living room.
Writer and co-director Morgan O’Neill based Drift on true surfer stories from the era; however, the movie mostly comes across as a grab bag of tired tropes. There’s a lukewarm love triangle involving a Hawaiian beauty, as well as an abusive alcoholic father, a friend whose heroin addiction threatens the group, and even a subplot about drug smuggling. The bad guys are bikers who wear black leather jackets. The movie’s sense of the period begins and ends at bell-bottoms and shearling coats, while its soundtrack leans heavily on head-slappingly obvious golden oldies like “20th Century Boy,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Rock And Roll (Part 2).” For all intents and purposes, Drift is a generic ’70s movie, made with little feeling for surfing, small-town life, or even the coastal landscape that allowed Australian surfing to flourish.
Peppered throughout the movie are all-too-brief surfing sequences, many of them made possible by mounting a camera on the board, GoPro-style. Because Drift never establishes a through-line between these offshore feats and the onshore drama, the surfing scenes feel disconnected from the whole of the movie. Eventually, they begin to resemble commercial breaks advertising a more interesting, more abstract film.