| Chicago Reader

Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear may be the weirdest home movie ever made 

Does your father love you enough to return from the grave as a guardian angel made of squid parts?

click to enlarge surfer-teen_confronts_fear.jpg

Take a moment to think about what you share on the Internet. I'm talking about the personal moments: innocuous photos of you and your friends at brunch, or video snippets from a day at the beach. Who do you let into that part of your world? Do you keep it within a closed network of confidants? Do you share it at all? How would you feel if someone collected years of private, mundane footage of you, and constructed it into a film? How would you feel if the person who did that was your dad? Well, that's what happened with Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear.

Writer, director, actor, producer, and composer Douglas Burke built his film around an assortment of videos he took of his son, Sage, riding waves from the ages of five through 14. If you've ever watched grainy home movies filmed by a parent with no aptitude for, say, framing, then you can get a sense for what these clips look like. Sage, often at a great enough distance it's hard to determine how old he might be from one shot to a next, surfing a wave. And then another wave. And then occasionally he wipes out. These clips make up roughly 30 percent of a movie that stretches just beyond 90 minutes. The camera never gets close enough to Sage to suggest he feels any type of way about the act of surfing, which I suppose benefits the film.

Sage stars as the film's Teen, who, as the subtitle suggests, harbors a fear . . . of surfing. (Are you with me so far?) In a voice-over, Sage (who plays, uh, Sage) says a big wave knocked him out, and he hasn't been the same since, nor has he tried to get back in the water. Burke plays his father—actually, he plays an angel composed of squid parts clung together to resemble Sage's father, who died serving in the military when Sage was younger. At the start of the film, the angel washes onto a beach where Sage decides to fish; after he's revived by Sage, the angel proceeds to lecture our hero about how God will help him get over his fear of surfing. This message is important enough that the spirit of Sage's father convinced the powers of heaven to send him back to earth—again, in the form of an adult human but actually a collection of squid parts.

About 15 minutes of this and Sage's face turns blank. This long section of basic B-roll footage of surfing interspersed with static shots of Douglas talking at Sage is liable to make any sane person feel the way Sage looks: bored and apathetic. There are a few genuinely batshit moments that crop up during Burke's monologue—like when he forces Sage to stare at a (real) whale carcass that washed up on the beach, or when he howls in anguish after discovering he (an angel!) has emotions, or when he coughs up ink (again, squid parts). Unfortunately, as in many middle-of-the-road bad movies, these parts are incidental, and the spaces between make much of Surfer an exercise in patience with little payoff. Which makes some sense considering Burke has no experience making films, but he also talks at people for a living; he's a physics and electrical engineering professor at the University of Southern California. Comments on his Rate My Professor page report that he's an entertaining lecturer, though one who doesn't really teach his students much of anything. In 2010, a USC student uploaded a YouTube clip taken during one such lecture; there's Burke, sporting sunglasses and long hair, doing the Worm at the front of a lecture hall.

As a director (and writer, actor, producer, and composer), Burke appears to have all the makings of someone capable of making a truly entertaining movie that fails to adhere to the most basic components of a good movie. His lack of self-awareness, inability to understand how to build a basic narrative, and what appears to be a strong desire to put himself front and center of a film that's ostensibly about his son should, in theory, result in some genuine and unexpectedly enjoyable scenes. But while Surfer eventually shows some forward momentum when Sage meets his dad's old military buddy, Banks (Gerald James, the only person onscreen who appears to have critically evaluated what it means to be an actor), it remains a sputtering, hollow mess occasionally brought to life by a stray incidental detail.

What's compellingly strange about Surfer is that it isn't strange—for all its technical faults, directorial quirks, and general ineptitude, the movie stretches out into a bland yawn. What could be amusing quickly becomes mundane.

Perhaps it's about heightened expectations. The Music Box hosted two midnight screenings of Surfer earlier this month, and a friend whose taste in bad movies I trust suggested I watch it. The few pieces of writing on the Web about this movie favorably compared it to The Room, which should have been a red flag—it's the most obvious measuring stick for "so good it's bad" films, and ultimately an unhelpful one. I devour these kinds of films because there's something uniquely identifiable to each one, some spark of joy I can only get from that one movie. And while Surfer has some distinct qualities, the long stretches of Sage surfing are best suited for the person who made the film. Which, I suppose, has its own merits.   v

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