In 'Bra Boys,' surfing family pushes limits by dodging law, rough water

Al Alexander

If you’re a fan of “Dogtown and Z Boys,” the 2001 documentary about underprivileged L.A. beach kids finding an outlet for their misery through skateboarding, you’re gonna love “Bra Boys.”

Although it’s set half a world away in Australia and involves riding waves, not concrete, the similarities between the two films are uncanny. Both were written and directed by members of their outlaw societies, Stacy Peralta of the Z Boys and Sunny Abberton of the Bra Boys.

Both are about muscular athletes wrestling with the strong arm of the law. And both are teeming with hell-raising rebels whose dubious exploits would be appalling if they didn’t consistently wow you with their infectious bad-boy charisma.

In the flesh, you’d cross the street to avoid getting your lights punched out just for looking at them, but from the safety of the theater, you can’t avert your gaze from these young, aimless roughs who fascinatingly redefine family.

Who better to narrate their story than Russell Crowe, a charming rogue himself? His tough-guy demeanor perfectly suits this tale of crime and prejudice centering on the patriarchal Abberton clan of Maroubra Beach, a crime-ridden blue-collar berg of mostly government-subsidized estates about 10 miles from Sydney.

Since the 1980s, the Abberton homestead has been the epicenter of what evolved into the Bra Boys, a collection of poor, mostly fatherless children with chips on their shoulders, tats on their backs and surfboards under their feet.

One of them, Koby Abberton, Sunny’s younger brother, has gone on to achieve stardom as one of the world’s top big-wave surfers (much like Peralta in skateboarding), but most, like Koby’s brother, Jai, are forever caught in the undertow, navigating the court system more than the waves.

During the film’s briskly paced 85 minutes, Sunny Abberton exposes us to an almost daily fight for survival in a world where cops, rival gangs and giant waves pose serious risks to their health.

One particularly disturbing segment has the boys playing show and tell with their numerous knife and gunshot wounds; another graphically illustrates the power of a splintered board after it’s ripped a gapping wound in a surfer’s neck.

The centerpiece, though, is Jai and Koby’s fight for freedom after the former is charged with murder and the latter is accused of abetting the 2003 slaying of an ex-con surfer named Anthony Hines.

They become a rallying cry for the Bra Boys tribe, an already close-knit community that takes tremendous pride in watching one another’s backs. And while Sunny Abberton’s prejudice is obvious in his offering only the sketchiest of details about his brothers’ legal battles, the case has resonance.

So do the many scenes of the Abbertons blasting through enormous waves (set to Jamie Holt’s pulsating original score) with the grace and beauty otherwise missing from their lives. It’s a truly thrilling sight. But it’s also a bit dispiriting knowing their attempts to conquer the sea are systematic of their overall need to continually push the boundaries to the point of having a death wish.

It’s nearly as depressing as Sunny Abberton’s lack of objectivity in a film that’s being billed as the first sanctioned by the Bra Boys. Well, duh, the thing is practically a valentine in which the Boys are largely portrayed as brave, gallant individuals seriously misunderstood by both rivals and the police, whom the film claims unfairly target the boys from Maroubra (from which the “Bra” in their name is drawn).

I suspect the planned feature film on the clan that will be directed by Crowe and star Mark Wahlberg as Koby Abberton will be even more of a whitewash.

But for purely entertainment purposes, it’s tough to beat “Bra Boys,” a sad, exhilarating film in which tempestuous souls are paradoxically soothed by a wild, raging surf.

Catch it while you can.

The Patriot Ledger