‘Tribes of Palos Verdes’ is a beautiful but flawed take on the Peninsula
Brendan and Emmet Malloy’s latest film, “The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” had a high bar to clear, and the fault is their own. As far as cinematic takes on surfing localism go, it would be hard to top a four-minute deleted scene from “Fair Bits,” the Malloy Brothers’ Taj Burrow-centered surf movie from 2005.
The skit centers around Donovon Frankenreiter and Ben Stiller — disguised in a fake mustache and trucker hat — who post up in a beach-front carpark, channeling Laurel and Hardy as they ape their way through the finer points of localism. They growl “No photos!” as they clumsily wrench a camera away from a mom and daughter out for a stroll. They clutch late-morning Budweisers while talking down the surf, which, in passing shots, looks absolutely firing. (The spot is never named, but the footage suggests a certain Oxnard Ventura County beach break with a reputation for violence). And they harangue a series of passersby who include Burrow, the late Andy Irons, and the Malloy Brothers themselves. “More like the motherfuckin’ Marx Brothers,” Stiller mumbles from the lot as one of them threads a spitting barrel.
It’s hilarious, and it dramatizes the way that hateful surfing locals are almost always clowns, as suitably brought down with a pie in the face as a vengeful exposé. This lesson, though, is often forgotten in the brooding “Tribes,” which snaps and turns with a seriousness that never quite feels earned.
The film follows teenager Medina (Makia Monroe), who moves with her family from the midwest to Palos Verdes. She encounters a sterile, superficial community that enforces manicured uniformity by municipal ordinance, and is so cloistered that the football stadium lacks lights, Medina tells the audience, “because locals didn’t want anyone from out of town there after dark.”
Medina launches this voiceover critique less than 15 minutes in, but it is already fairly clear what kind of ideas the movie has about Palos Verdes. Peninsula residents watching the movie will notice a fair share of easter eggs, but they are unlikely to be thrilled. Over the course of the film, Medina’s family tumbles downward like stones off a cliff, and it all seems to be the fault of the Hill and the people living on top of it.
As a finely etched portrait of the Peninsula, forget about it: “Tribes” dispenses with subtleties, like the existence of four different cities and an unincorporated area in favor of generalizations about the whole darn landmass. In interviews, the Malloy brothers have instead characterized the film as a look at the darker side of coastal Southern California, a place that tries very hard to be perfect. The idea is not quite an original one, but there are enough piquant moments to make one wonder whether people will groan at the movie for what it gets wrong, or squirm for what it gets right.
“Tribes” is an adaptation of the 1997 young-adult novel of the same name. In most reviews, the book carries the ambiguous descriptor “semi-autobiographical,” and in the years since its publication, Peninsula native Joy Nicholson’s tale has found a comfortable niche between cult classic and mainstream success. Its frank depictions of drug use and parents behaving badly have endeared it to teens typically bored by reading. But the real lure of the story, for coast-dwellers and landlocked alike, is surfing.
The “Tribes” of the title carries several meanings, but the most prominent reference is to the Bay Boys —or “Bayboys” in Nicholson’s truncated style — the crew of surfers that for decades have been accused of keeping people out of the water at Lunada Bay. As in the headlines, the Bay Boys of the film are buffoonish cro-magnons, who hold their territory with a mixture of intimidation and violence. (A lawsuit in federal court against several alleged Bay Boys is pending; last February, a judge declined to certify it as a class action.)
This protectionist behavior, of course, is also a great way to make something desirable. Not long after moving in, a mysterious noise at sunset lures Medina out her out of her bedroom. She climbs to the top of her family’s ranch-style home, and realizes that it is a crew of surfers hooting each other into waves. (In the film and book, the family home is posited as resting directly above Lunada Bay; according to an article in the Los Angeles Daily News, most of the film was actually shot just over the San Pedro border.) Entranced, she procures a surfboard by flashing a schoolmate, then repeats the process to get one for her beloved twin brother Jim. The Bay Boys ridicule Medina, which only seems to embolden her.
The film devotes little time to the arduous process of learning to surf, which is a shame because the Malloys are so talented at shooting in the water. They are responsible for some of the best surf movies of the young millennium, including “Thicker than Water” and “Brokedown Melody.” The surf scenes that are included are gorgeous, with a fluid grace that often eludes non-surfing directors, who tend to drown the action in slow-motion and noise.
Jim and Medina are wary of the Bay Boys, who appear to tolerate them because their home fronts the break. But while Medina seeks her own peak, Jim becomes part of the pack. Jim is played by the Australian actor Cody Fern, who looks like he enjoys his role more than anyone else in the movie. Rangy and feral, he manages to pull off a character who is somehow both stoned and angry for much of the movie. (Here is one voice for casting him in any film adaption of Kem Nunn’s “surf noir” books.)
Meanwhile, their mother Sandy — an anything-but-matronly Jennifer Garner — struggles to fit in. In an early scene, she attempts to fit in by going to lunch at a country club with some local women. They all order salads with dressing on the side, while she picks out a cheeseburger and fries. The scene initially feels like a heavy-handed attempt at using food to contrast Sandy’s midwestern authenticity with the West Coast shallowness of Palos Verdes women. The audience soon learns, though, that it is difficult to trust anything that comes out of Sandy’s mouth. (The movie mostly ignores the book’s exploration of Sandy’s compulsive overeating.)
Jim and Medina’s father Phil (Justin Kirk), drifts away from his unstable wife and is absent for much of the movie. A serial philanderer, he becomes a walking cliche after shacking up with a real estate agent, an underused Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone, in reality, a proud PETA member, gets in a winking joke when she chides her son from a previous marriage for bringing up the evils of factory farming at a country club luncheon.
The film’s one-dimensional depiction of Palos Verdes’ women, though, is pervasive and is the laziest aspect of its storytelling. (This is, in fairness, a limitation of the source material: sophomoric narration is the price you pay for a story told from the perspective of a high schooler.) Some of the best scenes come when the film actually bothers to interrogate the Stepford-wife-in-sandals stereotype it has erected. Sandy, dabbling in a real estate relationship of her own, discusses an arsonist torching homes on the peninsula, crudely announces she wishes someone would burn the whole place down. The Realtor, hurt, gets up from the table and says, “But Sandy, these people are my friends.”
With dad gone and mom acting like a child, Jim descends further into the Bay Boys cult he once ridiculed. Medina does her best to pull him out, but she is ill-matched against the lure of drugs and belonging. By the time Jim is bashing in the face of a hapless dad who dared to try to surf the Bay, his fate seems pretty much sealed.
It’s a credit to the filmmakers that they don’t bash us over the head with the parallels between keeping unknown surfers out of the ocean and keeping unknown people out of Palos Verdes. The Bay Boys and the plastic adults never seem to cross paths. Indeed, it’s unrealistic how ignorant the country club women seem of surfing altogether. The audience is left to wonder what the well-respected men and women really think about the ones doing the dirty work.
Whether you resent them, love them, or deny their existence, the Bay Boys attract attention because they represent a heightened version of the separation that makes surfing so alluring. More or less since “Gidget,” surfing’s mystique has come from the all the ways it is inaccessible: to squares who work during dawn patrol, to flatlanders living far from the beach, and to people whose bodies are not accustomed to piloting fiberglass over moving water. Belonging to a tribe can promote a sense of connection, but it’s only meaningful if some people are left out. And nothing says “exclusive” quite like telling even the willing and able-bodied to take a hike.
The Tribes of Palos Verdes, from IFC Films, is available for streaming online. The film is rated R, with a run-time of 1 hour, 43 minutes.