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Brian J. Smith,
'Newcastle' is a coming-of-age/family drama/surfing movie. 17-year old Jesse lives in the shadow of his older brother Victor's failure to become surfing's Next Big Thing. Even when he's in his natural habitat of magnificent surf breaks, his blue-collar future is brought home by the coal barges that constantly line his horizon. Jesse has the natural skills to surf his way out of this reality and onto the international circuit but can he overcome his equally natural ability to sabotage himself? A momentous weekend away with his mates that includes first love and tragedy leads him to discover what's really important, and also to the performance of a lifetime. Written by
Once in a while a film comes along which tries to be bold, daring, and provocative while still retaining enough "warm and fuzzy' to appeal to American audiences. The result is usually a self-indulgent train wreck that smacks of too many engineers in the locomotive. First time writer/director Dan Castle attempts it in "Newcastle," and the result will leave audiences wide-eyed with amazement.
The setting is a section of Australia flanked by the sound of heavy industry on one side and the crash of some of the best waves in the world on the other. It is here that a complex family drama is played out, with three brothers caught in a struggle for individual freedom and respect from each other. Older brother Victor has seen his championship surfing days come and go, so it's no wonder he harbors some resentment towards his 17-year-old brother Jesse, on the rise to becoming a champion himself. Jesse's twin brother Fergus throws everyone for a loop with his ever-changing hair color and enigmatic personality. Dad tries to hold it all together but, like any working class parent, struggles to find the time to even be present enough to make a difference. An assortment of surfer guys and gals adds even more peer pressure, and what starts out as a beach outing becomes a defining moment for everyone.
That said, "Newcastle" is anything but a film about surfing. Yes, it was a requirement that the actors be able to surf, but most young Australians do anyway. So casting was not a problem. And it's this brilliant ensemble cast that makes the multi-layered narrative work so well. Themes of parental responsibility, sibling rivalry, and unspoken sexuality revolve around a gritty coming-of-age story which, ultimately, is really more about brotherly love than anything else.
The story's true focus is on the relationships among the young men, specifically the two younger brothers and their feelings towards each other, their parents, their mates, and their girls, or guys, as the case may be. It's always hard to single anyone out in an ensemble cast but this film touches the heart more than anything by the performances of Lachlan Buchanan and Xavier Samuel as Jesse and Fergus. Their relationship is both heartening and heartbreaking in turn, and it only works because the on screen chemistry is so palpable. Their commanding presence says that these guys have a bright future in cinema. Reshad Strik is riveting as the tortured older brother and Shane Jacobson shines as the father who is the antithesis of the typical American movie's working class brute of a dad this guy has the heart of an ox. Kirk Jenkins (Andy), Ben Milliken (Nathan), and Israel Cannan (Scotty) are the core of the surfer mates Cannan provides much of the film's comic relief (and contributes several songs to the soundtrack). All add nuances and layers to their characters which surface when one least expects it.
Production values belie the film's modest budget, with the polished look of a Hollywood movie from the first to last breaking wave. The soundtrack is killer, an absolute requirement for any film featuring competitive sports. Most of all, though, the cinematography is breathtaking. Richard Michalak's shots of surfers riding the waves, with his camera looking up from the ocean floor, had me shaking my head with wonder. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. I avoid spoilers at any cost but I feel confident in saying that there are several scenes which will bring tears to your eyes. "Newcastle" sets a new standard for underwater photography.
Various elements in the film, taken individually, aren't necessarily anything we haven't seen before. But it's the way Castle integrates them and the lengths to which he is willing to take them which makes "Newcastle" so refreshing. There is some content which may be too uncomfortable for theatergoers who have issues with male nudity and sexuality. Some scenes will likely have young guys squirming in their seats. But that didn't happen here at the Tribeca Film Festival screening, and perhaps America has progressed to the point that we can appreciate a film which dares to be different.
With "Newcastle," Dan Castle pushes the boundaries of the typical American coming-of-age slash sports competition film (in this case, surfing). Perhaps he can do it because it is not, in fact, an American film at all but hails from Australia. Perhaps he can get away with it because it wasn't churned out by a Hollywood studio and didn't have the hand of the usual producers and distributors whose financing would undoubtedly come with strings attached. Or perhaps it's just because he had a vision and the tenacity to surround himself with others who wouldn't compromise. In the end, nothing is as it seems at first glance. "Newcastle" is a totally unexpected film at a time when there are far too few.
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