As far as the sports genre is concerned, those featuring surfing are about as niche as you go. Only 12 films have ever grossed more than $1 million at the domestic box office let alone found any measure of breakout success. Those that did find some semblance of an audience, like Soul Surfer and Point Break, had the added aid of family appeal and incorporating a heist element respectively, but for the most part they land with a whisper – not anything like the thundering, mammoth waves these daredevils tackle.
But in spite of this subgenre’s lack of mainstream appeal there is one thing they – and Australian import Drift – prove, and that is surfing looks damn cool, especially when presented so slickly and in such a high energy fashion. So it’s a shame in the case of this period drama (which transports us back to the early years of the sport in the land down under) that the wet and wild sequences trump anything transpiring on dry land and that most of the human drama relies on unnecessary plot turns and the usual formula that accompanies almost all sport based fare.
Drift follows two brothers Jimmy (Xavier Samuel) and Andy Kelly (Myles Pollard) and their mother who reside in a small seaside town following a late night escape from their abusive father/husband. Already carrying a passion for surfing, the two grow with the hobby and view their actual jobs as mostly inconveniences. It’s one day when their mother’s seamstress occupation produces a homemade wetsuit that gives Andy the idea of marrying passion with profession and they endeavour to open their own surf shop with customized gear and boards. But of course, nothing is as easy as it seems as money, gangsters, the allures of the hippy age and rivalries all act as roadblocks to a newfound dream.
Things are kicked off even further by the arrival of a duo of righteous surfers played by a tubular Sam Worthington and his plutonic companion Lani, played by Spartacus: Blood and Sand’s Lesley-Ann Brandt. So with this rag tag gang assembled they seek to revolutionize how surfers view the gear they use: surf attire made by surfers, not made by “the man” and promoted by models who have never hit the waves a day in their life. The premise, retro feel and fine performers make Drift seem like the right idea of how to approach this sport – using it as a backdrop to a family drama and a struggle for the little guy (with some awesome surf sequences tossed in for good measure).
While this is the case some of the time, Drift invests in too many unnecessary plot threads, including one about some thugs who for some reason have an issue with the Kellys, which eventually involves into an all out war as one of their own gets mixed up in the drug trade. With the Kellys already struggling with a mortgage, their start-up business and the trials of growing together, this added kink proves to be nothing more than a distraction (and is furthermore concluded in a laughably stunted fashion). There is also a bizarre storyline involving a completely underdeveloped, inexplicably evil banker trying to steal the Kellys farm, er, house which adds nothing but a cartoonish villain that makes Mr. Potter look chipper.
Worthington’s character JB is also a bit of a perplexing entity, though the Aussie native’s performance is certainly among the most natural he’s ever given. His tippy motif is fine enough, never becoming to philosophic and grating, but his ideals seem completely jumbled. One moment he’s stating (regarding the Kelly’s plan to make their own surf line) that you can’t beat the man by becoming the man and at another instance saying that you can’t always fight and should sometimes just resign to what is. Additionally scenes of him using his passion for photography and filmmaking to help make these brothers distinct in the industry go nowhere until the very end, deviating from the main story for what become perfunctory attempts to add substance.
Then we arrive at the climax, which of course involves a local surf competition, the winnings from which could save the family farm, er, house and get those gangsters off their back. Again, while impressively staged (and not concluded in the most ridiculous way possible) it collectively doesn’t get much more clichéd than that, and when you lump in the montages and other corny moments it truly softens the experience.
Not content on just examining an interesting moment in history, Drift piles on dramatic excess and contrived turns which are muted to some effect only by universally strong work from the cast and, again, those gripping surf sequences. So while certainly not boring and far from offensively bad, Drift isn’t compelling enough to warrant anything other than a rental, and definitely not enough to spur any sort of revolution for the surf drama.
As has always been the case, well choreographed surf sequences are a delight to behold on the big screen, but also having always been the case, cliché and messy drama is not.