For its first half, Doug Pray's mesmerizingly ambivalent documentary about an itinerant family of Jewish surfer health nuts operates in breezy colorful-geezer mode: Surfwise offers 84-year-old physician turned surfer dude Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz and his nine kids as intrepid explorers of an alternative American dream based on healthy living and withdrawal from society. But whether you call the family's life (cruising America in a beat-up two-room RV) a Rousseau-ian paradise or Capturing the Friedmans by the Sea will depend on where you stand on hippie living—until the film takes a sickening sideways lurch, as the Paskowitz offspring, still smiling away, admit that their father beat them when they didn't shape up; that he used his eldest son, David, as an enforcer; and that they had to listen while Doc had nightly sex with his terrifyingly compliant wife. Paskowitz isn't scary just because he's an abusive father, but because he's an absolutist—and, like most absolutists, he's a brutal perfectionist blind to the differences between himself and anybody else. How he got that way is never clarified, despite weak testimony from his siblings. And, as you'd expect from a documentary co-produced by the son of its subject, Surfwise ends with hugs all around. But at a family reunion, the genial old gent still can't resist pitting a slim son against his chubbier brother.
Adam Paskowitz starting riding young.
Opens at Varsity, Fri., May 30. Rated R. 93 minutes.