★★ / ★★★★
Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan) lives in the shadow of his older brother, Victor (Reshad Strik), a former surfing champion, and in his determination to step outside of it, his passion for surfing has turned into an obsession to win. His latest opportunity takes place in a local contest in which the two participants with the highest scores will get a chance to compete on a bigger venue. Jesse places third. In order to help Jesse forget about the loss, his friends suggest that they go on a trip to a lesser-known beach spot during the weekend, hang out, surf, and have fun with girls.
Written and directed by Dan Castle, although “Newcastle” does a decent job juggling its subplots, there is no denying that its protagonist is as bland as a plank. The editing does not do the lead actor any favor. It made me wonder if Buchanan was miscast. Each time a scene involving Jesse is about to reach an emotional peak, one of three things occurs: the film quickly jumps to another scene, an actor with more personality walks into the frame, or the mood shifts so suddenly as to avoid an emotional payoff. This proves frustrating because I wished to understand Jesse’s anger on a deeper level.
I liked that Jesse is not very likable. He is bullied by Victor. But since Victor has a larger physique, Jesse feels the need to retaliate on an easier target. There is no other target more easily accessible than Fergus (Xavier Samuel), the youngest of the brothers, given his purple hair, manicured fingernails, and a reputation for being a homosexual. Each time Jesse calls his brother a “fag” or “faggot,” I could not help but get angry at him for being so unnecessarily cruel. Yet at the same time we feel sorry for Jesse because one can conclude that he houses the most insecurities out of all his friends and brothers. Other than Victor, no one sees or treats him as a target.
No effort is put into exploring Jesse’s self-pitying and so the later scenes where we are supposed to root for him to win hold very little to no impact. The surfing scenes are repetitive but quite beautiful so they are never completely dull. The film holds the most tension when a character gets knocked around a wave and struggles to swim to the surface. I remembered a friend of mine, a surfer, telling me a story about his near-death experience, how the ocean seemed to pull him downward more powerfully the harder he struggled to get to the top and get some air.
The picture makes an efficient use of slow motion to put us into the mindset of someone who is drowning. I know this from personal experience. When I was five or six, my dad had to pull me out of the ocean. The waves somehow managed to sweep me away from the shallow area. The three things I remember include the panic, the burning in my lungs as I struggled for air, and how slow it all felt.
However, the story boils down to Jesse. Since the material does not invite us into his perspective often enough and allow us to understand him beyond what is on the surface, his turning point feels bogus. It probably would have been more involving if the picture had been about Fergus and his relationship with Andy (Kirk Jenkins), one of Jesse’s friends, because what they have is more interesting and the answers to their situation are likely to be far more complex.