Berkela Films // 2007 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // August 28th, 2008
A documentary film about respect, surfing, loyalty, brotherhood, and murder.
Four out of the five descriptors listed in the tag line above for Bra Boys are excellent and make for an enjoyable documentary about surfing and the cultural evolution of beach gangs in Australia. One of them fails to excite, and it might not be the one you expected.
In Maroubra, a low-class beach suburb of Sydney rife with social housing, crime, and poverty, the surfing lifestyle is the only thing that keeps young boys on the so-called straight-and-narrow. Beach gangs, formed out of necessity rather than any desire to perform misdeeds, become the adopted family group for outcasts, misfits, runaways, and troublemakers who need a place to call home. Surfing is the alternative to a life of crime or drugs for most of these troubled teens, and those who embrace the lifestyle do it with manic passion, making these Aussie surfers some of the most notoriously brave and daring, almost suicidal. They drink, they party, they surf the hell out of every wave that washes ashore, and they get into good ol' fashioned knuckledusters with rival beach gangs. They are the Bra Boys, and they embrace life hard and fast.
The film centers on the lives of four Bra Boys in particular, Sunny, Koby, Jai, and Dakota Abberton, brothers all. The most well-known of the four is Koby Abberton, a world-class professional surfer whose career was almost sidelined due to the legal problems of his brother, Jai. Bra Boys, created by brother Sunny, takes viewers behind-the-scenes into the lives of his brothers as they try to survive a horrendous ordeal that threatens to crash all of their lives into the rocks.
Narrated by Russell Crowe (of all people), Bra Boys takes viewers on a crash-course history lesson into the tumultuous history of Australia, effectively making the point that history has been unkind to those who opt to play in the sun and ride waves all day. When the English showed up on the island back in the 1800s and found the natives there doing exactly that, they pretty much put a genocidal end to that. Flash forward a good hundred or two hundred years later and not much progress has been made. Despite the allure and appeal that a surfing lifestyle might have to us overseas, in Australia, surfers are the lowest of the low -- the bottom-rung of society, harassed and mistreated by the authorities and condemned for their bohemian lifestyle.
'Tis an admittedly compelling little tale told, especially to those of us not environmentally blessed to be born and raised down under. Despite constant clashes with police and being stigmatized in the media as being violent, groups like the Bra Boys come off surprisingly soft and sympathetic here, shown as a caring support group of friends who pledge to become the family support system that they all lacked in their lives. Bear in mind that this is a film made by the Bra Boys about the Bra Boys, so some manner of bias is no doubt inevitable. Still, one cannot deny the odd appeal and admiration towards these young men from circumstance who have carved out an entire world for themselves on the beaches. Like most "gangs" in the United States, most youth involvement stems from necessity and/or poor home lives, but unlike our home-grown gangs, beach gangs seem oddly benign, occasionally getting into fistfights with rival groups, but usually content to drink, surf, and act like louts -- hardly the bustling criminal organization that the Australian press and police make them out to be.
Well, except for the whole murder thing. Acts Two and Three of Bra Boys focus on the legal problems of two Abberton brothers, Jai and Koby, who get charged with the murder of a standover man in the neighborhood. This part of the film is more problematic, but more on that later.
Bra Boys is the epitome of independent documentary filmmaking, bearing all the telltale signs of someone whipping this film up on a home computer. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- I say good for them! Just make sure your audiophile expectations are set accordingly. The letterbox transfer is pretty weak, rife with compression artifacts, murky source material, and pixilated footage from cheap digital cameras (some of the video footage looks like it got scooped up directly from YouTube) but again, home computer. As for sound, it is nice to see a full surround presentation here, but the mix gets wasted on the material. The audio is thin and hollow, voices have a mechanical undertone, and the surround mix exhibits an almost random use of rear channels. The music is mixed so low you can barely hear it.
Nothing in the way of extras, which is a shame. I would have liked to see more behind-the-scenes shenanigans. By the looks of the Boys, these guys seriously know how to party.
There are two separate films in Bra Boys, and unfortunately, one is far more interesting than the other. The first third of the film has structure and message, telling a fantastic tale about the surfer culture in Australia, the rise of beach gangs, clashes with authority, the surprisingly tender social system devised to support and help out fellow brothers, and so on. The last two-thirds of the film dissect the legal trouble of Jai and Koby Abberton from the fisheye view of their brother Sunny. As documentaries go, objectivity goes right out the window. Bra Boys feels more like hijacked home videos edited together than a film with any kind of point or message behind it; or worse, like watching a made-for-television courtroom drama where the outcome is never once in doubt.
Frankly, Bra Boys would have been a much better film had it focused more on the boys as a group, and less on the trials and tribulations of the Abbertons. A full examination of the subculture that gave rise to this sort of community would be a fascinating film indeed.
Bra Boys is an entertaining and informative documentary despite being a little too close to its subject matter for the sake of objectivity. A bit on the uneven side, too much of the film feels like a boring courtroom drama, but it's hard to find fault with the endlessly impressive surfing shots of insane kids riding the most unbelievably suicidal waves. The parts that are good tip the scales of justice into Bra Boys's favor.
Not guilty. Not bad for a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Berkela Films
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site