Sheilas Don’t Surf: ‘Drift’ at its best only with impressive Australian-set surfing footage

drift posterDrift

Directed by Morgan O’Neill and Ben Nott

Written by Morgan O’Neill

Australia, 2013

Watching Drift is akin to feeling like Milhouse van Houten. He howled, in that long-ago Simpsons episode on the school bus, “When are we getting to the fireworks factory?”Drift, a period piece about the surging popularity of surfing in Western Australia, spends far too much time withholding surfing footage, presuming that what audiences would rather watch is discussions about surfing instead. Once the characters stop talking about the business of surfing, or the equipment related to surfing, or the feeling that one gets while riding a particularly radical wave, and they get on their boards and start riding said waves, Drift comes alive.

Drift, which was “inspired by actual events,”–a phrase that’s dubious enough to make one wonder exactly how much of what transpires on screen did happen, as opposed to being a mix of myriad real-life people and events distilled into only a few–focuses on brothers Andy and Jimmy Kelly (Myles Pollard and Xavier Samuel), who move away with their mother from their abusive father in the sepia-toned prologue to the beaches of Western Australia. Both young men have a passion for surfing, though Andy’s less comfortable on a surfboard than his prodigy younger brother is. There’s not much to the plot outside of them struggling to get by on their love of surf, and attempting to create a surf shop in a town filled with people who either don’t care or are trying to lure the duo into various criminal activities.

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This movie is getting some amount of play in the States thanks to one of the supporting players, Sam Worthington. He plays JB, one of Andy and Jimmy’s cohorts, a surfer/photographer/hippie who wants to document the sport in all forms. Worthington takes a break from playing barely one-note action heroes; all he does, though, is move laterally into this character. He doesn’t get a ton to work with; as much as the movie isn’t squarely focused on plot, the script, by co-director Morgan O’Neill, who co-wrote the story with Tim Duffy, traffics entirely in the familiar. Andy is stubborn and headstrong, falling in love with JB’s friend/lover/token female character Lani (Lesley Ann Brandt), but then, Jimmy’s also attracted to Lani, making for an odd love quadrangle, all the more so because whatever tension may be presumed early on in this foursome dissipates quickly.

This subplot speaks to the greater issues surrounding Drift. Though the film is well-made—the handful of surfing sequences are striking and legitimately tense, as there’s never a point where the footage looks staged—the characters within the environment aren’t involving enough for O’Neill, co-director Ben Nott, and Duffy to get away with making what is, essentially, a hangout movie. Every so often, Drift focuses on the plot, specifically in how Andy and Jimmy have to fend off a drug-dealing biker who doesn’t care about the sport of surfing, but mostly, we’re just watching these characters…well, drift their way through the beginning of an apparently historic period in modern Australian culture. Frankly, it’s easy to leap to the assumption that surfing has become a huge, iconic element of modern Australia, but Drift doesn’t emphasize how impactful it is, or how timely Andy and Jimmy are to be in the center of this growing storm.

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Pollard and Samuel are fine as Andy and Jimmy, though Andy is the closest Drift has to a main character. Jimmy, as the more daring young brother, represents someone who always has to be rescued by his wise older brother. Pollard, thus, has more to do but either plays it frustrated—when dealing with a fusty old banker who refuses to help the Kelly brothers open their surf shop—or fairly bland. The closest the movie gets to a memorable performance is that of Aaron Glenane, who plays Gus, one of the surfing hangers-on who’s unable to stop dabbling in drug-dealing. Gus is a doomed character, and his arc is fairly predictable early on, but Glenane’s work is just the right level of sweaty desperation. He allows Gus some humanity in the midst of a series of totally expected events.

Drift is purportedly based on a true story, but despite its period trappings, it never feels as important as its makers presume it is. The highlights of the film are the scenes in which our characters get into the water, sometimes wearing the jumpsuits that Andy and Jimmy (and their mother) make for sale at their burgeoning surf shop; specifically, a scene at the midpoint where Andy, Jimmy, and JB face off against a massive wave is jaw-dropping to watch. O’Neill doesn’t do anything fancy with the camera: just a wide shot of exactly how miniscule humans look against the awesome power and force of nature. It is in these moments that Drift is most vital, exciting, and thrilling. When the characters get out of the water, everything dries up.

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