Newcastle (2008)

| July 30, 2009

Despite featuring a talented and dedicated cast, and some well-shot and edited surfing footage, Newcastle doesn’t add up to much by the end, and it’s a shame because the material had some potential, beginning with various teen coming of age/sibling conflict/sports story clichés and then going in different directions. Unfortunately, everything is woefully underdeveloped, and the end of the film feels more like the budget ran out than the story was over.
The story such as it is begins with Jesse Hoff (Lachlan Buchanan, Oz TV’s “Home and Away”) competing to join a local competitive surf team in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. (That’s on the southeast coast, a hundred miles north of Sydney. Newcastle is the second most populous city in the state after the more famous home of the opera house.) Jesse is living in the shadow of his once famous brother (or perhaps half or step, the script is murky), Victor Hoff (Reshad Strik, The Hills Have Eyes II), who was once king shit on the local waves until a broken knee and a knocked up girlfriend sidelined his career. Meanwhile, the third brother in the house (again, it isn’t clear whether he’s half or step or to whom), Fergus (Xavier Samuel, September, the upcoming Twilight sequel Eclipse), suffers the most direct torment at Victor’s hands, although Jesse has a tendency to pronounce his name “Fag-us” around his other surfer friends.
Jesse fails to make the cut at the beginning, goes on a trip to a more deserted beach with his surfer friends and two Sheilas, reluctantly allowing Fergus to tag along. Good times, drinking, sex and surfing ensue, followed by a sudden and unexpected disaster, which takes a life. This is the only true surprise in the movie (you will not guess who dies), but it unfortunately leads to mostly… nothing. Jesse spends the rest of the film brooding in guilt, his parents are no real help, and so on, until he’s suddenly kicked out of his despair in order to take part in the televised contest – seeing as how there’s suddenly an empty spot on the team, and his third place win was enough to qualify. And then… the finish is more abrupt than the end of Vertigo. It’s rare that I feel ripped off by the end of a movie, and this was one of those cases. I found myself saying, “That’s it?” Imagine the original Rocky cutting to the closing credits just as the opening bell for the fight rings. Yeah, it’s that bad.
I can see the ideas that writer/director Dan Castle (Zona rosa) was trying to get at, and they would have been brilliant if he’d managed to develop the characters and pay them off. An underlying theme seems to be that sometimes, the only way a family can get rid of its ghosts is if somebody literally becomes one. There’s also a touch of having to face one’s fears in order to win. But this is storytelling by telegraph. All of the characters are way underdeveloped and the two females who go on the fateful surfing trip, Debra (Debra Ades, in her debut) and Leah (Rebecca Breeds, “Home and Away”) are wasted, since their only purpose seems to be to provide the tits to counterpoint all the male asses on display in a giddy but underlit oceanside skinny-dipping beer fest. The relationship between Debra (or is it Leah?) and Jesse literally goes nowhere. (The other relationship in the story, involving Fergus, is equally underdeveloped.) We only see “the girl Jesse screws” one more time, just so Jesse can get all emo and walk out on Debra. Or is it Leah? It doesn’t matter, because they are completely interchangeable, Actually, many of the males are interchangeable as well, since they are mostly all curly-haired beach blonds who become indistinguishable when wet – not a good thing when you’re trying to keep track of who’s winning and who’s losing in the surfing competition. Victor and Fergus are the only exceptions, one with a shaved head, the other with defiantly black hair. Despite the great aquatic photography and editing, story-wise, it still adds up to a muddle, a la Gladiator, in which you have no idea who’s dead or alive until you see them breathing on shore.
Reluctantly, I have to give this film a pass, even on DVD, even if you’ve got nothing else to watch. Yes, sometimes even gratuitous Australian surfer nudity isn’t enough to recommend a rainy day rental. Besides, you can probably find all the good bits on YouTube, and those amount to about three minutes.
If only the story had been as developed as the naked Aussies on the beach, it might have been worthwhile.

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