The title sounds as if it could be fronting an "American Pie"-style sex comedy or a sober drama about transgender teens. But no: "Bra Boys" is a rough-and-tumble Australian documentary about a swaggering, misunderstood surfing subculture. It's also quite stunningly one-sided. However much the film musters sympathy for the maligned boy-men it depicts, we always sense we're hearing only half the story.
In part this is because Sunny Abberton is the writer and director, and he and his brothers are at the film's center. Narrated by Russell Crowe (who's rumored to be mulling a dramatized version of the events shown), "Bra Boys" opens with news footage representing the media's appalled view of Sydney's poverty-stricken beach tribes: brawls, police riots, murder charges - and international surfing championships.
It's a fascinating paradox, and Abberton immediately drops impartiality to give us the surf gangs' point of view. The best part of "Bra Boys" is the historical footage establishing centuries of official neglect and heavy-handedness, from the aborigines who were banned from the beaches to the poor whites who had to pay to surf. Out of this cauldron of resentment rose the tribes: young men from broken homes who banded together to ride the waves and fight anyone who said otherwise.
The director focuses on the crew from Maroubra Beach: the Bra Boys, most of them raised from childhood by the Abbertons' beloved grandmother, Ma, while their parents were off shooting heroin. The film, shot willy-nilly on video, is unapologetic about the tribe's macho code of brotherhood and the high times it engendered - bloody parking lot punch-outs, hellacious surfing wounds, and young men setting themselves on fire and jumping off cliffs. One curious aspect of the film is that, aside from Ma, there are virtually no women to be seen. This is Planet Testosterone, and proud of it.
In 2003, Jai Abberton was taken into custody for the murder of Anthony Hines, a fellow Bra Boy and all-around bad news bear; brother Koby Abberton was subsequently arrested on the eve of a major surf competition for refusing to help the investigation. "Bra Boys" uses reenactments to make the case that Jai acted in self-defense, but the tactic comes off cheap and unconvincing. Worse, the director never bothers to talk to anyone outside the tight coterie of insiders. Why should he when his brothers' freedom is at stake?
There's a happy ending for the Abbertons, followed by a lot of celebratory wave-riding footage, but the stink of disingenuousness remains. It cancels out the crude but caustic depiction of class war the film's early scenes established, and it clouds our sympathy for the Bra Boys themselves, rough but exuberant customers who've found the family they were denied elsewhere. Maybe the murder of Hines went down just as Sunny Abberton says it did, but it'll take a better filmmaker to convince us.