Movies about surf gangs made by surf gangs have an understandably difficult time placing themselves in proper context. It’s a process akin to writing your own eulogy: you choose what you’ll be remembered for, but often times the retelling of those memories grossly distorts your actual legacy. Consequently, Josh Pomer’s much-anticipated documentary, The Westsiders, which details Santa Cruz’s violent, drug-addled surf culture through the eyes of Jason “Ratboy” Collins, Shawn “Barney” Barron, and Darryl “Flea” Virostko, quite understandably warranted skepticism. The Bra Boys movie wasn’t helping its cause, so when the film opened with words borrowed from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”) and then flashed to Vince “The Godfather” Collier recounting an instance where he smashed a Louisville Slugger over a surfer’s head, I sunk back into my seat, concerned about the trajectory of the ninety minutes to come. But for all my skepticism, I was pleasantly surprised.
Not that the experience of watching the film was pleasant. To hint at the emotional weight of this documentary, in 93 minutes we relive the death of Ratboy’s father (which he witnessed), the death of two of Flea’s best friends, the shooting of one of Barney’s friends, the death of Mark Foo, the realization of Barney’s mental illness, the rehabilitation of Flea, and the dark descent of Vince Collier into a life of narcotics and paramilitary intimidation. In one particularly disturbing interview, Collier comes to terms with tying a victim to a redwood tree and branding him: a grotesque byproduct of his deep involvement in the regional drug trafficking scene.
Needless to say, The Westsiders tackles heavy issues in an extremely intimate way, which one might expect considering Pomer has known the film’s stars since childhood. But following Flea, Ratboy, and Barney from their first waves to the present day was no easy task, especially considering the volatile nature of their lives. When Pomer began the project, Flea was still addicted to methamphetamines. He drank a half-gallon of vodka each day. And a year and a half before the project’s completion, Virostko fell off a hundred-foot cliff during a meth binge, breaking his arm and narrowly escaping death. Shortly after, he checked into rehab.
“Basically, I didn’t know the ending,” said Pomer, 37. “I knew the beginning, and I knew the middle. The end was writing itself. Flea wasn’t really that sober yet, and basically I told Flea, ‘How do you want the movie to end? Do you want the movie to end with you dead? Do you want the movie to end with you sober?’ I think the film was sort of a catalyst. It was a mirror, and they had to really examine what they were doing. Flea had to figure out whether he wanted to live or not.”
Ultimately, Flea and his cohorts chose to live. At present, Flea has been working on a rehabilitation program called Fleahab that incorporates surfing’s restorative benefits into treatment for addicts. Ratboy, who – as the documentary reveals – was expelled from school for drugs, now coaches the Santa Cruz High School Surf Team, and Barney teaches kids with learning disabilities to surf. While things seem to have settled down among the film’s protagonists, the town’s propensity for self-destruction appears tragically intact. Recently, surfers in Santa Cruz were shot and killed in alleged gang disputes and big-wave surfer Anthony Ruffo was busted in a $3,000 meth raid.
“There’s still a lot of drama going on,” says Pomer, “but it seems like the tide’s definitely switched from a culture of meth and drugs and turned into a culture of rehabilitation, which is great.”
And this transition, although somewhat longwinded, informs the project’s intentions and magnitude. It’s a cautionary tale that paints its subjects in the sometimes-unflattering light of brutal honesty. Sure, they’re proud of their accomplishments and skirt objectivity on occasion (“In Santa Cruz we had to do things better than anybody else to get noticed,” Pomer told me. “We always had to prove ourselves.”), but ultimately, The Westsiders is an ambitious project, especially for a Santa Cruz native to execute. As a semi-autobiographical opus, Pomer hopes the film will do right by the community that raised him and address Santa Cruz’s deep-seated problems with the sincerity and skill required to make a positive impact. It’s a lot to bite off, and despite a few dead ends in a very complicated (but true) narrative, he succeeds where his predecessors have not.
“The only way you can heal is by talking about stuff, and there could be a sequel to this movie eventually about Ruffo or what these guys are up to now,” says Pomer, “but the only way you’re going to inspire these kids…[is to] get it out in the open, because we’re the first surfing generation that’s lived through that meth. So it’s super important if we can let 16-year-olds know…just stay away from it.”
The Outsiders screening in Oceanside, California was part of the 2010 California Surf Festival, where it won an award for The Best Story.