Review of Surfwise: The Amazing True Odyssey of the Paskowitz Family

Review of Surfwise: The Amazing True Odyssey of the Paskowitz Family directed by Doug Pray
Rating ****

This is an interesting look at a family that lived off the grid (way off). Today when you say that someone is living off the grid it usually means that they are not dependent on any outside agency for their existence. They might provide their own food and power for example. This story involves one man's idea of living off the grid who also happens to take his entire family with him.

Dorian Paskowitz is a successful doctor with a promising future. He becomes disillusioned with his life when he discovers that his wife is cheating on him. A second marriage also ends in divorce. This sets him on a quest for the meaning of life. What he decides is that happiness and health are not dependent on wealth but in living a life free of the pressures of modern day society. He embarks on a search to find the perfect woman. When he finds that woman, he immediately starts to build his family. By the time he's through he has fathered nine children — eight sons and one daughter. This film tracks what happens to this family as they travel across the country living in a twenty-four foot camper.

Dorian discovers surfing and spends most of his waking hours in search of the perfect wave. He works odd jobs now and then in remote locations in order to provide some funds for his family. But for the most part the kids go hungry and have little in the way of creature comforts such as clothes, toys, and a home. What they do have is what some might call a Utopian existence. Every day is a vacation. They spend their days on the beach surfing and playing. They wander the country with no specific destination in mind. Dorian has sex with his wife in the camper while the kids sleep (or try to sleep).

Dorian is educated but he denies his children the same opportunity. So what at first looks like the ideal existence becomes a major detriment to the kids when they eventually leave the family and find that they are ill suited for living in normal society. This is the point where the film becomes more than just a look at one wacky family's alternative lifestyle to something much deeper. You get to see what impact this lifestyle had on the kids and Dorian and his wife over the years. This elevates the film and gives it relevance.

With no education, each of the kids struggle to make their way in the world. Most of them become involved in professional and competitive surfing, where they excel. But surfing can only take you so far. In the real world there are mortgages and car loans that have to be paid. Fortunately, they aren't completely illiterate. The one thing they did do as children was read. They became self educated through books. As you listen to each of them describe their upbringing you get the sense that they turned out okay despite their alternative lifestyle.

Still, there is an underlying bitterness toward their parents. The oldest son becomes estranged from the family for nearly seven years. In many ways they are not as close as you would think they would be having lived together in such a confined space for so long. When they have a family reunion at the end of the film, you definitely get the sense that they haven't been together at one time for many years. My mom has eleven brothers and sisters. They are all still living. They get together (most of them) every two years. They certainly stay in touch more frequently.

So what about Dorian and his wife and their Utopian existence? The film doesn't explain how he manages to pay for his residence in Hawaii where he lives. I'm guessing that his sole income is from the very government that he tried to distance himself from. Though it's possible that he receives income from the surfing camp he started and his sons still operate. But the ideal family he worked so hard to create is scattered and fractured. There aren't scores of grandchildren running up to give him a hug. I got the impression that the spouses of the nine kids barely know him.

In the end you come away feeling that there is no Utopia. The choices he made had advantages and dissadvantages. Dorian admits that he made mistakes and I give him credit for that. He also has some good ideas about diet, exercise and the need for rest and recreation. I'm on that bandwagon myself.

The DVD has a few extras: some out takes and a short film about Israel Paskowitz's surfing charity for autistic children. Add this one to your Que. It will make you think.

Update: Shortly after the original post I read another review that mentioned an audio commentary. I didn't see anything about an audio commentary in the special features section of the disc, where you would normally expect to see it. So I put the disc back in and sure enough there is an audio commentary in the set up section. I seldom listen to the entire audio commentary for the full length of the movie, but I did in this case. The commentary is by the director, one of the producers and Salvadoe Paskowitz. The insight they bring adds to the film. Take the time to listen to the audio commentary. You won't be dissapointed.

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  1. […] of the best surfing footage you’ll find anywhere. Some other films involving surfing include Surfwise: The Amazing True Odyssey of the Paskowitz Family and Crazy for the Storm. I would certainly add Soul Surfer to my list of recommended films based […]

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