For the last 30-odd years, Southern California has promoted its surf culture as a happy mash-up of great tans, beautiful weather and laid-back attitudes. Well, things aren't always so sunny in Australia, where economic hardship in many coastal communities has led to violence, drug trafficking and even murder.
Maroubra Beach, just outside Sydney, is the setting for the new documentary Bra Boys from first-time writer/producer Sunny Abberton, who details the history of the infamous beach gang of the title, and in particular the lives of the three oldest Abberton brothers, Koby, Sunny and Jai.
Australian history, or at least the Western version of it, is not pretty. "Discovered" in the mid-1700s by Captain James Cook, the first European settlers were the dregs of British society—exiles, cast-off convicts and social riffraff. Some of these bad beginnings led to sprawls of housing projects, low-income neighborhoods and the sort of violence-ridden gangland "turfs" that often characterize American inner cities. Into this depressed lifestyle were born the Abberton brothers, birthed at home so that Mom's heroin addiction wouldn't be discovered. And here, they formed the group that would eventually become the Bra Boys, one of Australia's most notorious surfing brotherhoods.
Surfing plays an important role in the Aussie psyche, similar in many ways to how rap and hip-hop are viewed in metropolitan ghettos. It keeps kids out of trouble and, for a lucky few, it's a way out of the economic strife they've grown up in. But the gangs that accumulate in Australian beach areas are generally considered a public nuisance, engaging in Jackass-like pranks and fighting with neighboring groups over territory and wave time.
The film acts as both an homage and an excuse for this behavior. Citing the troubling home life and excessive drug availability, the Abberton brothers are quick to categorize their antics as youthful hijinks and tomfoolery. Even a 2002 brawl that stemmed from a Bra Boys birthday party colliding with a policeman's Christmas party, is dismissed as mere "larrikinism," Aussie slang for mischief or outlandishness. But there's an ugly underbelly to this malarkey. The latter half of the film centers on the 2003 death of Australian underworld figure Anthony Hines, whose murder leads to charges for both Jai and Koby. Brother Sunny uses archived news clips and personal interviews with friends and family to create a sympathetic portrait of his brothers as maligned yet hopeful innocents, whose hard-scrabble lifestyle is held as evidence against them.
Being directed by a sibling of the accused leads to some definite conflicts of interest in terms of documentarian honesty. The seedier parts of the trial are passed over, and no member of the legal opposition or police force is ever interviewed. Instead, Abberton plays up his brothers' family and community involvement, even tacking on a coda about the Bra Boys involvement in diffusing the 2005 Sydney race riots that swept Cronulla Beach and passed through Maroubra—which incidentally translates from Aboriginal as "Place of Thunder." We're also given a fly-on-the-wall view of "Ma" Abberton's funeral, the paralytic grandmother who offered the boys sanctuary from their broken home.
The celebration when the brothers are acquitted is a bit saccharine, but the intention is heartfelt. These scenes admirably humanize the Abberton brothers, but certainly don't prove their innocence. Koby later is found guilty on an obstruction of justice charge, but this is never even hinted at in the film. It's unfortunate that the documentary comes off as a public-relations piece for the Abberton brothers and their friends, because it really is a fascinating story. Treated with a bit less partiality and a bit more completeness, the film truly would be great. Instead, it is an incomplete valentine to a talented but troubled family.
But, in the end, this is a surfing movie, and big waves are plentiful. For a non-surfer, this can become repetitious, but there are enough thrills and spills and nasty surf-related injuries to keep even a landlocked viewer engaged. With intriguing characters and fantastic locations, it is no surprise that the film, like its Western cousin Dogtown and Z Boys, is being considered for studio blockbuster treatment. Russell Crowe, whose Aussie heritage and own public misdemeanors render him the perfect—if superfluous—narrator for the film, is said to be optioning it for distribution. While his star power has unquestionably helped the film receive worldwide release, it is the Abbertons' show. They are the heart of the film, and their commitment to family and community is surprisingly inspirational. All three brothers have had professional careers as surfers, and Koby is considered one of the top freestylers in the world. Still living in Maroubra, the Abbertons have taken many other troubled youth under their wings, pushing them to find freedom out on the waves. Bra Boys is an incomplete story but the message it sends is clear: life's not always a beach but, in any brotherhood, blood runs deeper than water.