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With religion-themed movies finding traction again in Hollywood and beyond, a film that combines the tenets of Christian faith with the global popularity of surfing would seem to have a wide potential audience. Following its release earlier this year in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, The Perfect Wave may encounter some resistance stateside, however, from those disinclined to set aside a view of surfing as irredeemably hedonistic and consequently unwilling to follow the film’s arc of gentle persuasion.
Carefree New Zealand surfer Ian (Scott Eastwood) is in his mid-20s and lives for catching the next wave, and why not? Even though he’s out of school, his parents aren’t forcing him to get a job or kicking him out of the house. But when he decides to sell his car and pursue an overseas surfing tour in search of the “perfect wave,” his devout Christian mother (Cheryl Ladd) tries to dissuade him after one of her frequent premonitions indicates the trip may put Ian in danger.
Since he abandoned his religious upbringing and belief in God long ago, Ian isn’t persuaded by her concerns — “I never felt the presence of God,” he says. “To me, he just didn’t exist.” Ian heads out to Australia with his buddy Greg (Jack Halloran), catching waves from Sydney to Darwin, then hopping over to “Indo” and surfing the beaches of Bali, where he meets the enchanting Anabel (Rachel Hendrix), a free spirit who decides that dating the Kiwi surfer is priority one. After they couple up, the pair travel to a remote Indonesian island, falling deeper in love before moving on to South Africa’s fabled surf, where they reunite with Greg and his new girlfriend, Roxy (Rosy Hodge).
Soon after their arrival, Ian and Anabel fall out over her close relationship with her brother-in-law Lachlan (Scott Mortensen). After she disappears in the middle of the night, Lachlan suggests she may be heading for Mauritius, where her family maintains a home. Arriving on the coastal African island, Ian discovers a community of hardcore expat surfers, but no sign of Anabel. One night when he’s free-diving for lobsters along the coast, Ian gets repeatedly stung by highly toxic box jellyfish and rushed to a nearby hospital. Although initially declared deceased, that’s not quite the end of the story, as divine intervention offers him a chance at redemption.
Based on the true story of young surfer Ian McCormack, who became a Christian minister following his near-death experience in Africa in the 1980s, commercial director Bruce Macdonald’s first feature film feels curiously inert. With the better part of the running time devoted to the characters catching waves at gorgeous surf spots, picking up girls on pristine beaches and living the surfers’ vagabond life, any sort of significant conflict is glaringly absent. So when Ian finally does face the challenge of his life — regaining his faith in God — the impact is tellingly underwhelming.
Eastwood, who got his start with small parts in father Clint Eastwood’s movies but has since branched out, pulls off Ian’s transformation competently enough, but there’s not much challenge to the role to begin with. As a key influence on Ian, Hendrix’s Anabel deserves more screen time and deeper characterization, but mainly serves as the fulcrum that pivots Ian’s destiny to Africa. Ladd’s turn as a true believer who thinks that she personally converses with God and can influence her son’s destiny through that relationship may seem a far cry from some of her more free-spirited roles, but she never appears to lack conviction.
The overall production package appears polished without trying too hard, making the most of some great location shooting, although the surf photography, while clearly accomplished, doesn’t offer much that hasn’t been showcased to better effect elsewhere.
Production company: Divine Inspiration
Cast: Scott Eastwood, Cheryl Ladd, Patrick Lyster, Rachel Hendrix, Scott Mortensen, Nikolai Mynhardt, Jack Halloran, Rosy Hodge
Director: Bruce Macdonald
Screenwriters: Billy Wood, Roger Hawkins
Producers: Bruce Macdonald, Bryan Hickox
Executive producer: David Selvan
Director of photography: Trevor Michael Brown
Production designer: M.J. Botha
Costume designer: Dihantus Engelbrecht
Editor: Tim Goodwin
Music: Jeremy Soule
Rated PG, 94 minutes
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