Writer and Director: Martyn Robertson
Beautifully shot, Ride The Wave is not just a documentary about surfing. It’s also a coming-of-age story, set at the very edges of the world where waves are for the taking.
However, the film opens with disaster. While riding an impossibly tall wave, 14-year-old Ben Larg disappears as another wave comes crashing forward. Voices speaking over the blown-up footage, pixelated and blurry, sound anxious. It’s a gripping start and as we are whisked back to three years earlier, we have to wait until the film’s very end to discover Ben’s fate.
Ben has grown up on Tiree (population 653), an island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides with his parents and siblings. At the age of 12 he is already the Under 18 Scottish Surfing Champion. Newscasters suggest that he may be surfing’s equivalent of tennis’s Andy Murray. Even at his young age, Ben looks every inch the surfer; shoulder-length sun-bleached blond hair and a tan that seems the result of a life lived in the Mediterranean and not some remote Scottish island.
As the camera follows him over the next few years, we see Ben and his father, who sometimes acts as his son’s coach, travel to Japan and Portugal for various championships. He does well, but doesn’t come home with any medals. At one point his father blames his losses on his son’s attitude, but later the family begin to realise that Ben needs to ride bigger waves than the ones that visit their island.
Ben’s family travels to Ireland so that he can surf on the giant waves that wash up against the coast of County Clare. When they arrive, Ben seems happier and more relaxed than in any point in the film. Back in Tiree, he’d been bullied and his parents had taken him out of school but he appears more secure in the company of the veteran surfers in Ireland who regale him with safety advice and show him gruesome photos of injuries caused by the rocks in the Irish bays. It’s a wonder that Ben’s parents ever agree to this surfing rite of passage.
Martyn Robertson is a discreet filmmaker, and the cameras that follow the family around are unobtrusive, and Ben is as comfortable in front of the camera as he is on his board. And the shots of surfers skimming the water under the lip of a wave, always slightly ahead of the water tunnel that threatens to engulf them, are a real treat. However, perhaps there could more discussion of what skills the judges at the competitions are looking for. The technical aspects of the sport could sit nicely against the personal battles that are otherwise the film’s main focus.
The structure of Ride The Wave also doesn’t feel quite right. With its opening cliffhanger, the film sets up a narrative that it can’t deliver and the ending feels underwhelming when so much time has been invested in the hunt for the biggest wave. Still, Scott Twynholm’s music ensures that the film is always coherent no matter which country Ben is surfing in and it sounds best when it ebbs and flows like the tide itself.
With a cinema release due next year, Ride The Wave proves that some risks are worth taking.
Ride the Wave screened at the London Film Festival.