Drift: A review

I went and saw Drift on the weekend. 

I wasn’t going to, but a few trusted people had told me it was surprisingly good, so I thought I’d push through my reservations about the film and check it out. Let me show you why I wasn’t interested in going (from the director's Vimeo account);
Based on true events, Drift is a story set on Australia's spectacular and rugged coastline in the early 1970s. It begins in a remote coastal town with the two Kelly brothers, who spend their youth searching for the perfect wave.
Out of necessity the family launch a backyard surf business; rethinking board design, crafting homemade wetsuits and selling their new surf gear out of their van.
Battling killer waves, small town conservatism and hard-core criminals, the brothers persevere, daring to dream of a world where they can surf to live and live to surf.
A story of passion and corruption, deadly addictions and fractured relationships, Drift tells a tale of courage and the will to survive at all odds.

See why I was nonplussed? My experiences with these kind of ficto-historical films is that they are high on big-waves, risk, mateship and clichés, and low on anything new or inclusive. I suppose I often leave feeling as though they are films for the boys. But I had been told this film was different, so I took myself off to my local cinema and sat in the afternoon showing – me, and about six middle-aged couples – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The film itself is really well shot and the water sequences are great. Pretty spectacular actually. This isn’t a ‘surf film’, but is a mainstream movie, so the sequences had to be shot without making assumptions about how the viewers understand waves. And the effect of this was really beautiful. When the main big wave sequence happened, a couple of women were gasping and commenting on the size of the waves. It was like an inner city, middle-class, non-surfing version of the hooting and hollering that happens when you go see surf films. I thought that was really cool.

As for the story? 

(Look, since this turned into such a long review, let me give you the condensed version in case you're short on time: The film is good. It has lots of themes including comp vs. soul surfing, development of surf industry, women, and drugs. The way it represents women is cool. The way it represents drugs is as a normalised part of surfing culture where drugs are both fun and problematic. These representations of women and drugs are important, because other historical films and stories - both fictional and non-fictional - contribute to the collective ways we come to remember surfing. Go see this film.)

As you can see from the synopsis, and as most of the other reviews of this film point out, plot wise there is not anything ground-breaking. The story is pretty predictable and the characters often conform to established Australian tropes, but it avoids falling into the usual clichés by giving the characters a little more depth than usual, and by not falling into the usual trap of representing Australia’s surfing past in the same ways as surfing histories usually do. I mean, first of all this is a film set on the west coast of Australia, far from the Nat Young, Bob McTavish and Rabbit stories over in the east. This film locates innovation in surfing as emerging in a time and place that lies far from the self-proclaimed ’definitive’ story we hear over and over about innovation in board design and surfing style.* It doesn’t claim ownership over these innovations, but instead suggests this story is part of a bigger movement happening at the time.

This point is really important in this review - that we think about how we represent the past and the effects of this on our collective and cultural memories.

Popular films that play with history are more important than they may seem, because they come to have power over how we think about the past – what we remember and forget, what we find important, what we think might have happened. This is especially interesting to me because when it comes to surfing, there are many threads to the historical narrative that continue to be left out. And when we leave things out enough times, their place in the story begins to become blurred and uncertain. In this film, there are a number of important themes and threads that I found particularly interesting - competitive versus soul surfing, and about the development and place of industry in what surfing has become – but this review will focus on two in particular: the role and representation of women and of drugs.

As you probably know by now, one of the loudly buzzing bees in my bonnet is the continued absence of women in the ways we recount surfing’s cultural past. It really, really, really annoys me when I hear people tell me, ‘but women didn’t surf’. Because, actually, women did surf in the past. In fact, women have surfed in Australia since the earliest days of surfing; since before Isobel Letham’s famous surf with Duke Kahanamoku. Sure, their numbers might have fluctuated, but as long as we keep repeating the idea that women didn’t surf in the past – especially in the 1970s – then that idea becomes historical truth. Documentaries and other kinds of histories are important in changing this perception, but so are fictional or based-on-real-events films and stories like Drift. So for me to find two great female characters so intimately connected to surfing culture in this film, I was stoked.

In addition to the main male characters – the brothers, Andy and Jimmy; the best friend, Gus; and the pot-smoking, free-wheeling, van-dwelling surf photographer, JB – there are two women who are central to the story, Kat and Lani. In another film, these characters could have been reduced to ‘mum’ (Kat) and ‘love interest’ (Lani), but in this film they are given depth and independence of their own, and both women play a key role in the personal development of the male characters, as well as the storyline. Kat is tough and kind. She doesn’t spend her time nagging or mothering her sons in a cloying way, but instead gets on with her work and life as they get on with theirs. You know, the way families do. And you know how the brothers are “crafting homemade wetsuits and selling their new surf gear out of their van”? Well, it’s not the boys who make those things. It’s Kat. Without her skills as a seamstress, the brothers wouldn’t have been able to sell wetsuits and screen-printed t-shirts. Kat becomes a partner in their success – making products and decisions in how the business is run. To think that women were absent from contributing to how the lifestyle and industry of surfing developed seems silly. These changes were not just a product of the act of going surfing, but also of a broader period of time and social change. Kat’s role in this film is not as a surfer, but as a contributor to what happened in surfing, a role that continues to be overlooked because women like Kat didn’t surf.

But this is not the case with the young, beautiful, tough, Hawai’ian woman, Lani. Because Lani surfs! Well! In solid waves! On a shortboard! In the 1970s! And this is not a point that warrants wonder and comment from the brothers, instead it garners admiration for her skill and daring as a surfer! Whaaaaaat? Lani surfs, and there isn’t a separate plot thread to account for that, which is so great and is different to how women are usually represented in the surfing past. If women appear as surfers in films it is often in a learner capacity, and their developing surfing acts as a form of eventual triumph and rebellion. Lani is different. She surfed already and her surfing (at this stage of her life) has nothing to do with proving a point. It’s just something she does and something that is a part of her everyday. She is independent and rebellious but she doesn’t need to prove that to anyone. She tries out the new boards that Jimmy is shaping and she tells them her opinion on how the boards function in the surf. Her thoughts on this mean something to the brothers too. And she is included in this way without comment, as though this is a reasonable thing for a woman to do in the 1970s. That is so freaking awesome. Thank you, thank you, thank you, the writers, crew and cast of Drift.

In a similar way to the representation of women in surfing films, while I realise that there are many stories about illicit/illegal drugs and their place in the culture of surfing, I remain unconvinced that these are included in surfing documentaries and biographies with any real sense of the way they were incorporated, and the impact they continue to have. For those of us interested in surfing history and culture, we are familiar with the myriad stories of pot, heroin, cocaine, ice and (let’s never forget) booze. And look, without being at all flippant, these stories often add context and colour to surfing history and culture. For example, where I’m from there is a break named after an American surfer who lived there for a period during the 1970s. The story goes that this surfer was deported for running drugs (true), which he transported in a boat (true) and brought ashore at (or near) the surf spot that now carries his name. See, context! While some of these stories are harmless and no different to the recreational drug-use stories to be found outside of surfing, some of them are much darker, violent and more worrying. I continue to hear many such stories anecdotally, and needless to say that drugs and surfing culture appear to remain closely acquainted. However, like the ones I know, these stories remain anecdotal and second-hand except in more mainstream films about surfing, where they seem to feature consistently, the way they do in Drift.

Remember kids, drugs can be fun but they also destroy lives.

The role of drugs in Drift is variously fun and violent and sad. There is no real moralising, but there are cautions – there are lines drawn that you should not cross. The role of drugs in this film fills a space that we are all likely familiar with (even if not directly) in our own lives and relationships – a space of pleasure and release, but also of trouble and decline.** And I liked that approach. I thought it was honest. But the smuggling, access, decline and violence are there and cannot be ignored, which is a good thing. Because when you look through the history that surfing writes for itself, those stories don’t really appear. They might in anecdotal form in conversations, but they are not comprehensively on the record. Not really. MP? Andy? Maybe, but as surfers now gone, their stories are are almost revered. What about surfers that are still about the traps? Occy and Tom Carroll have both admitted to the role of drugs in their lives, but the extent of this role is possibly played down. The north shore of Hawai’i is the backdrop for some pretty worrying stories, but we still don’t like to talk too much about that. The recent biography of Gary Elkerton, Kong, has apparently got some more honest stories about his connections to drug use, but I haven’t read that so I can’t really comment. So for possibly greater admissions of the place of drugs in surfing culture, we have to look for films.

I realise I have taken a long time to make my points in this discussion and that this review might have become a little bit ‘Too Long, Didn’t Read’ for some of you. But I think this idea is one that is really important for those of us who publish words, images, and films about surfing to reflect on. Even when they are fictional, the things we publish have cumulative effects on our cultural memories. And this is why I really enjoyed Drift. The way this film represented the lives and experiences of these characters seemed relatable and honest to me. Perhaps not ‘true’, but that isn’t really important in the end because it’s not claiming any kind of historical authority the way that documentaries and ‘definitive’ histories do. Instead the film is trying to capture a time and place and feeling and sense of excitement and possibility that I think will be accessible to many more people. It certainly was for the (to my eyes) non-surfers in the cinema around me. And that is really impressive. And even more importantly, it walked its own line in terms of the stories and themes it included in the story. It would have been so easy to do something done before, to make the same connections and conclusions, but Drift didn’t. In an admirable way it embraced a main message from the film - that we should live our own lives and not simply buy into what everyone else is doing.

* Never trust a history that calls itself ‘definitive’.

**I feel like I need to clarify something here. Not to protect my own reputation, but instead to make clear my own relationship to drug-use. Which is almost non-existent. Beyond booze and a bit of pot (which I did inhale) I’ve never used recreational drugs. Not because I think they’re wrong or terrifying, but because I don’t think they’re right for me - I don't need anything that increases my excitability. My friends thank me for this decision. Also, I have travelled a lot and read many books, so my mind expansion and creative exploration feels adequate. Having said that, I have been around drugs a lot and while people on pills and coke are pretty boring and self-involved, to be honest, I’ve seen more fucked up and threatening behaviour from overly drunk people than those on party drugs, let alone from stoners. Heroin and ice are another story. I'm not saying drugs aren't problematic in a load of ways - they are! - but I think we have to admit that people use them because they are fun, and that most people seem to be able to manage the role of recreational drugs in their lives. 


  1. Great review thanks Bec - off to see it on this recommendation. I was pretty much blah about it up until now...

  2. Great points re film and history, Bec, and the ways that repetition leads to mythologizing.

  3. Anonymous12:24 PM

    This is a great review, really thought provoking. I was a WA teenager at the time this movie was set and I was only so so on going to see this movie. After your review, I'm pretty keen to see it.


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