'Andy Irons: Kissed by God': Film Review

A sadly familiar story of life at the extremes.

Steve and Todd Jones offer praise and sympathy for a surfing star who died young.

Adventure-sport documentarians Steve and Todd Jones tell a sadder story than usual in Andy Irons: Kissed by God, about the world-champion surfer who died at 32 after a lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder and addiction. Though stocked with impressive action footage, the film is overshadowed from the start by the athlete's fate and can only view the man through that lens; he becomes a bundle of self-destructive impulses that only finds equilibrium in the ocean. Fans will appreciate the elegy, but the film doesn't have as much crossover potential as it might have.

The doc's first interview starts with tears. Bruce Irons, Andy's younger brother, sits in front of a black backdrop and says he never thought he'd have to tell this story. But the more he recounts, the more inevitable the film makes it seem.

The two grew up on Kauai, the towheaded sons of a dad who surfed before it was trendy and a mother whose relatives were all skiers. They got their own boards for Christmas around first grade; before high school, sponsors came calling. By 17, Andy was making $120,000 from just one brand, and was traveling the world for competitions.

Both handsome and physically gifted, the boys competed fiercely and sometimes beat up on each other — Bruce calls it an "interesting relationship" — and the film doesn't really explain at what point it became clear that Andy's success would overshadow that of his brother. It does, however, depict the rowdy social environment that engulfed both young men: Part of a huge crew of Hawaiian surf bros known as the Wolfpak, they brought buddies on tour with them and often partied all night. Some more well-behaved surfers marvel, in retrospect, that Andy was able to surf in the mornings after drinking and doing drugs until dawn.

But foreign substances weren't the only thing keeping Andy unstable. He'd had learning disabilities since childhood that made him feel stupid; he was impossible to control in class and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (The Joneses bring in a couple of doctors from Harvard, one of whom is Kurt Vonnegut's bipolar son, Mark, to shed light on this experience.) By the time he was on the ASL World Tour, those around him knew that, as one puts it, he could be "chill and cool" one minute and "gnarly and high-strung" the next. Some poignant interview footage finds Andy in troughs of depression, trying to cope with the stresses of this intense life.

As the film sees it, waves were an almost guaranteed, albeit temporary, cure for Irons' mood swings. From the time of his parents' divorce through the intensity of fame, surfing was a refuge where all he thought about was the next wave. Watching as he glides effortlessly through one barrel after another, it's easy to believe that was true.

The directors offer a chronology of Irons' professional career, which included three world championships, while introducing two relationships that would define his adult life: Longtime girlfriend Lyndie Dupuis married him in 2007 and was seven months pregnant when he died; surfing legend Kelly Slater was Irons' rival on the circuit and, after an intense back-and-forth in 2005, kept him from earning his fourth championship in a row. Interviewed here, Slater is clearly pained by the fate of his nemesis, who had made gestures toward friendship in the months before he died.

The patterns of addiction that led to Irons' 2010 death are sadly familiar from innumerable other films about stars who died young — though the film does make the story timely with a jab at Purdue Pharma, makers of the opioids he found so hard to kick: We see a vintage advertisement in which an authoritative-looking man tells prospective customers that, of those who are prescribed opioids, "less than 1% of patients become addicted." Andy Irons would have had a hard road ahead of him even without the pills and powders people kept giving him. But the ubiquity of OxyContin and its kin seemingly all but guaranteed he wouldn't live to see retirement.

Production company: Teton Gravity Research
Distributor: The Orchard
Director: Steve Jones, Todd Jones
Executive producers: Chris Hemsworth, Brett Hills, Drew Holt, Steve Jones, Todd Jones, Andrew Logan
Editors: Justin Fann, Chris Kursel
Composers: Scott McKay Gibson, Andrew Sorge

100 minutes