Some documentarians think like essayists, propagandists, abstract painters, or magazine reporters. Doug Pray approaches his documentaries as though he's writing books. From his earliest films, Hype! and Scratch, to his latest, Surfwise, Pray has shown an ability to cover a lot of ground without rambling aimlessly or sacrificing the kind of rhythmic editing and image-gathering that makes a documentary artful. In Surfwise, Pray tells the story of Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz and his nine children, who spent the '60s and '70s traveling the country in a beat-up RV, living hand-to-mouth while surfing as much as possible. Pray leaves few aspects of the Paskowitz legend unexplored, or overexplored. There will be no need to ask, "But what about…?" while watching Surfwise. Pray will eventually get to it.
And with the Paskowitzes, there's a lot to get to. Doc's story alone is remarkable; an early success in the medical community, he was tabbed as a potential political leader until he ditched it all, traveled the world to find a sexually compatible mate, and started breeding his clan of super-fit, iconoclastic master surfers. They lived "like wolves," impressing everyone they met with their natural diet, personal discipline, and nomadic existence. Everyone seemed to want a little of what the Paskowitzes had, though few were willing to go so completely off the grid. And after 20 years or so of ascetic adventuring, even the Paskowitz kids weren't sure they needed to go so far, either.
For about the first half hour, Surfwise paints The Paskowitz Way as fun and idyllic, but it's clear that something isn't being said, and that the other shoe hasn't dropped. As it turns out, there are no dastardly secrets to be revealed—aside from the fact that Doc was known to knock his kids around when he deemed it necessary—but what happened to the Paskowitz family is in some ways more devastating. Kept away from formal education and the corrupting influence of materialism, Doc's children grew up and were set loose in a world they weren't fully equipped to navigate. Most of the last hour of Surfwise tackles the big themes that the first third of the movie sets up, from the long-term impact of an open attitude toward sex to whether closeness naturally breeds contempt. And the most important question: How can a freethinking father mandate his ideals without violating them? Pray covers it all, and movingly so.