While The Tribes of Palos Verdes, a film by Brendan and Emmett Malloy starring Jennifer Garner and Maika Monroe, is by no means a surf film, it paints a vivid portrait of Southern California’s insular, gluttonous coastal culture through the lens of Palos Verdes, a small, wealthy community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In doing so, it might be one of the most accurate renderings of Southern California surf culture I’ve seen attempted by Hollywood. To be sure, this film unflinchingly shits on the Palos Verdes community and a group of surfers called the Bay Boys, who (in real life) have bullied and intimidated non-locals to keep Lunada Bay an unofficially private beach for many years.
I spoke with the Malloys before the film premiere at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles about the role the Bay Boys and localism play in the plot. They insisted it was a peripheral matter that they address delicately, so I expected a muted criticism on the topic. Instead, localism was a central character.
Told through the eyes of a teenage girl named Medina (played by Maika Monroe), who relocates with her dysfunctional family from Michigan to scenic Palos Verdes for a fresh start, TTOPV details her introduction to and growing obsession with the ocean. It’s an obvious outlet from the shitstorm she faces at home marked by her parents’ disintegrating marriage, her twin brother’s drug addiction, and her mother’s psychosis. As would any extra-curricular. A deepening passion for chess, basketball, or Medieval literature also would have done the trick. But the juxtaposition between the misery of humanity’s most disgusting vices with cliffside views of the Pacific is certainly more visually interesting. As for Medina, she manages to retain her “outsider” status in the surf community despite becoming an adept waterwoman by the film’s end. Interestingly, Medina never self-identifies as a surfer, which makes her observations more honest and interesting. She loves the act of riding waves. That’s it. Not the bullshit trappings of surf identity marked by understatement, fashion, and exclusivity
“The more you act like a surfer, the less they like you,” she says matter of factly.
In fact, the only characters that identify as surfers are, unreservedly, pieces of shit. There are only two representatives from the surf community in the film: The Bay Boys and Alex Knost, who plays a surf celebrity that looks, talks, and surfs exactly like Alex Knost. The Bay Boys almost exclusively do drugs, get wasted, or harass/assault non-locals (including a father attempting to surf Lunada with his son) while on screen. And Alex Knost’s homophobic character, who seems like he might be slightly redeemable in distancing himself from “The Gay Boys,” as he calls them, sexually assaults a teenaged Medina in his camper van. I spoke to Knost before the film, and he said he had a few speaking lines, but didn’t know too much about how he might appear. I saw him drinking a beer in the lobby after the premiere, too. I wondered how he felt about his role.
So that’s what surfers look like in this film. Which is pretty shitty.
The shittier thing? Knost’s portrayal notwithstanding, I don’t think this characterization of self-proclaimed Southern California surfers is terribly off base.
While Medina humors the Bay Boys by adopting some of their behaviors for the express purpose of increasing her wave count, she never converts to become a tattooed member of “the tribe,” so to speak. She’s too curious about the world around her for that. The self-proclaimed surfers in the film are uncurious assholes. Not too different than guys who throw rocks at and/or expose themselves to girls scaling the cliffs at Lunada Bay.
The other characters in the film struggle with deeper issues endemic to the nation’s wealthiest families. Infidelity. Drug abuse. Vanity. A collapse of morality. Keeping the door closed at their private clubs. In that sense, there’s a masochistic pleasure that appeals to both wealthy and lower/middle-class audiences alike. The rich take solace in watching the plight of the privileged unfold on a big screen. They can relate to the perceived isolation and obligations of maintaining appearances. Alternatively, less affluent audiences sit back and enjoy watching rich people suffer. Surrounded by natural beauty, living in plush mansions with unobstructed views of the curving, blue horizon, the Palos Verdes families are absolutely miserable. So the viewer shovels popcorn, guzzles soda, and watches them suffer in their castles for cages. Somehow, those with unfettered access to earth’s treasures become consumed by a self-imposed misery.
That’s the haunting train wreck the viewer joins for one hour and 44 minutes. You leave the theater with a renewed appreciation for missing that train. Or rethinking how to stop it.
The film ends with Medina planning to escape the hell hole that is Palos Verdes to chase perfect waves around the earth – to Bali, Hawaii, Australia. The usual suspects. Which felt extremely logical. Who wouldn’t want to escape a drug-addled, broken home – even if it is on a cliff overlooking the Pacific? But it’s a problematic, saddening conclusion. We can only hope that she doesn’t turn into a xenophobic, sexual predator like all the surfers she met at home. We can only hope that she doesn’t become the self-destructive, entitled virus colonizing Southern California’s most breathtaking coastal real estate. We can only hope she doesn’t become the addicted derelict obsessing over appearances while harassing those unlike her. For her sake, we can only hope she doesn’t become the thing so many of those shitty people who caused her misery proudly call themselves: a surfer.