Revisited: I Took a Break from Building My Toothpick Diorama to Go See the Weirdest Movie of the Year

The screenwriter of Blair Witch just watched his first movie in 18 months, so of course he wrote about the experience for Talkhouse.

Over the festive break, Talkhouse Film is revisiting some of its most read (or listened to) pieces of the year, including this one. Happy holidays! – N.D.

Hello readers! It is time to once again take my hand and venture back into the local cinemporium for another round of everyone’s favorite delight: movies! Now, you may recall the last movie I reviewed for you: Nine Lives, a film that has aged phenomenally. “But Simon,” I can hear you wrathfully howl, “That review came out on August 5, 2016! Why haven’t you reviewed any films since then?” Well, the truth, dear readers, is that I have not seen a film since then. There were a couple that struck my interest, but none of them looked truly special, and besides, I’ve been creating an autobiographical diorama out of toothpicks.

However, a few weeks back I saw that fellow friend of cinema Phil Blankenship had posted a trailer on Twitter that caught my eye. If you don’t follow Phil on social media, you should, if for only one reason: he is the most adventurous moviegoer I know. Phil is the kind of guy who will drive out to Irvine to see some unknown movie that’s playing only one screening simply because it’s playing only one screening. Ever look at a multiplex’s various listings and at the bottom there’s some film you’ve never heard of? Well, Phil’s heard of it, and likely has strong feelings about it.

As such, I took note when Phil posted the trailer for Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear, as it’s called in all marketing materials. It’s been a while since I enjoyed a fine night out at the movies, I mused, and I do quite like surfing, and fear. So off I drove to the Laemmle Music Hall 3!

Surfer (the onscreen title) is a film written, directed and produced by Doug Burke, a 54-year-old USC science professor who also stars in the film alongside his mortally embarrassed teenage son, Sage Burke, who plays the lead character of Surfer. Opening narration informs us that Surfer had a bad surfing accident and is now scared to surf, so he just fishes all day to be near the ocean. One day while fishing, he sees a man drowning, causing Surfer to cut his fishing line, run out into the water, run back to shore, then run back out into the water and save the man.

The man Surfer rescued turns out to be his father, Jack. Surfer is confused because he was under the impression that his father died “in a war.” Jack confirms that this is accurate, he is dead, and tells Surfer to feel his hand, shouting that it feels like “hard jelly.” He explains that he asked God to help him return to the mortal realm to give his son advice, and yells, “God made me out of squid and electricity.” That matter resolved, Jack gives his son advice in a lengthy oceanside monologue featuring a 12-minute continuous shot, during which Jack proclaims, “There’s always a whale crying somewhere in the ocean,” and at one point screams, “I am living in an iron maiden of pain, boy!” This causes Surfer to shrug uncomfortably and look at the ground, as if vaguely worried that some of his friends from school might walk by and see him. Anyway, the gist of the whole speech is that Surfer needs to confront his fear.

To move things forward, Jack forces Surfer to look at a dead whale, then tells him to go to an address and ask the man there, Banks, for money to go surfing. Once at this location, Surfer finds that it is a secret military hospital where, in a shocking twist, his father is a patient, alive but brain damaged. Banks, a military doctor, tells Surfer that Jack was an elite, government-trained assassin who, on his last mission, swam through shark-infested waters in order to attach a bomb to a boat. However, Jack was caught in the explosion and has been semi-comatose ever since. After a scene of hypnotically repetitive dialogue, Banks gives Surfer money to go surfing and Surfer goes surfing.

Narratively, this is the end of the film; however, we see Surfer surf, go surfing again, then surf some more. Roughly about half of Surfer’s 96 minute runtime is comprised of home movie and vacation footage of Surfer surfing. Sage Burke, to his credit, seems to be quite good at surfing, which is I suppose why his father decided to make a film about that. You will have time to contemplate this extensively.

At the screening I attended, Doug Burke was present for a Q&A, although his son was not. Doug cheerfully noted that Sage “won’t get anywhere near this theater,” and said that his now 16-year-old son told him, “I just can’t handle that right now.” Reportedly 11 years in the making, Surfer was conceived as a silent film, then transformed into something more like a narrative when Doug Burke decided to rekindle his longtime love of method acting.

Other key information delivered at the Q&A was that Doug Burke’s original cut of the film was 6½ hours long, at which time he asked the movie’s editor to help him shorten it, and the score was composed by Doug watching the final edit and humming along to it, then recording his humming and giving it to a composer. We all had many more questions. At one point in the film, Jack tells Surfer that Surfer was saved by the spirit of a sea lion, which is is never referenced again, causing me to genuinely think I imagined it. I asked about this, and Doug Burke’s reply was helpfully recorded for posterity by Jason Eisener in the video below:

I have mixed feelings about Surfer. On one hand, it is a fine film about surfing and receiving poetic life advice from the ghost of a semi-comatose covert assassin who has been temporarily resurrected as squid meat. On the other, it has no talking cat in it. But ultimately, it is a film that is worth your time and attention. Surfer concludes its one-week Academy-qualifying run (Doug Burke’s words, not mine) at the Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills this Thursday, February 22, then a later theatrical run in Newport Beach is scheduled. After that, who can say, so I recommend you run, don’t walk (or surf!) to see Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear. 18.5 out of 27 stars.

Simon Barrett‘s screenwriting and producing credits include The Guest, You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die, Dead Birds and portions of the anthology films V/H/S, V/H/S/2 and The ABCs of Death. His next film, Blair Witch, opens in theaters on September 16. He currently resides in Los Angeles.