A Life Outside: SBIFF Review

Less detail and more context would better focus this feature documentary debut. 

A small coterie of New Jersey surfers becomes the subject of Catherine Brabec’s retrospective film.

A microcosm of Jersey shore surf culture gets a thorough treatment in Catherine Brabec’s doc, but the larger significance of the film’s tight-knit group of surfers might escape many but the most discerning viewers. Festivals with sports- and marine-related sidebars may welcome the film, but prospects otherwise look slim beyond a very narrow audience.

Brabec, an experienced commercials director, recognizes the potential in profiling a half-dozen local surf aficionados, now mostly in their 50s and 60s, but connecting their experiences to the wider world of surfing is an iffier proposition. Beginning in the late '50s with the rise of surfing’s wider popularity, Greg Mesanko, Chris Mesanko, Kevin Casey, Jim Purpuri, Richard Luthringer and Bucky Walters were among the pioneers who helped turn the outsider pastime into a burgeoning sport in the vicinity of Seaside Heights, N.J. All local kids, they spent as much of the year as possible in the water, surfing even into the winter months.

As the sport caught on, vacationers and interlopers from other shore towns created friction with the locals, who responded with assertive tactics. According to the group, Greg Mesanko was the resident enforcer, chasing off unwanted visitors while dominating the well-known breaks around Casino pier. As time wore on and these guys started families and careers, they kept on surfing.

Mesanko took over a Seaside Park surf shop and built it into a regional brand, promoting competitions and attracting surfers from around the world to the Seaside breaks. Some of these recognizable names, including Corky Carroll, Gerry Lopez and Shaun Thomson, provide some context to the Seaside Heights surf scene, but a clear perspective on the role that the locale and resident surfers played in the broader popularization of surfing on the East Coast and internationally remains frustratingly vague.

Aside from the somewhat obscure significance of Jersey shore surf culture, Brabec’s focus on a small group of relative unknowns mostly serves to emphasize the individuality, rather than the universality, of these surfers’ experience. There’s much discussion of bygone rivalries, heavy-weather excursions and the transformative influence that surfing and ongoing intimacy with the ocean can have on surfers, but these are familiar litanies, enlivened principally by any local variations the Jersey surfers may have experienced.

The disastrous impact of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which forms the film’s principal turning point, arrives as almost a postscript to the surfers’ recitals of past glories. Tragically wiping out the Casino pier and its storied wave breaks, along with a large swath of habitation along the southern New Jersey coastline, the storm permanently alters their orientation to nearby beaches. While this may come as a life-changing event for a group of men entering their senior years, a sense of the hurricane’s impact on younger surfers with careers still to build would have more effectively contextualized the extent of the disaster.

Brabec evidences an absorbing enthusiasm for her subjects, but sometimes loses direction in the morass of local lore they offer up. These recollections and anecdotes are supported by archival material of drastically inconsistent quality that sometimes detracts from the intended import of segments. With the noticeable exception of some fine surf sequences shot by DP Russell Brownley, production quality on the film is sometimes borderline, with a variety of shots appearing out of focus or distractingly under-lit and interview audio improperly synched on occasion as well.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Director: Catherine Brabec
Producer: Catherine Brabec
Directors of photography: Peter Trilling, Russell Brownley
Editor: Catherine Brabec
No rating, 83 minutes