Australia. 1970s. The Kelly brothers Andy and Jimmy, both in their twenties, have one great passion: riding big waves. They’ve honed their surfing skills in the sleepy WA town of Margaret River, which hosts some of the world’s most challenging and dangerous waves. Knowing how to shape the perfect board, and encouraged by new friends, the brothers quit their jobs and launch a backyard surf gear business. They rethink traditional design, craft homemade wetsuits and sell their wares out of the back of their van. But their new found success is threatened when Jimmy gets mixed up with a local biker gang.

Smooth enough ride for brothers in boards.

Australian drama Drift’s tangible affinity with the culture and history of surfing is its strongest (but far from only) asset. Co-directors Morgan O’Neill and Ben Nott have captured the landscape and personalities of a time, 40-odd years ago, when a sleepy town on the west coast of the continent became the epicentre of the sport’s global change.

steadfastly likable and quietly compelling

Steeped in that Ocker-istic 'can do’ spirit, and evocative of both time and place, Drift is the true-life story of Andrew Kelly (Myles Pollard, particularly fine) and his younger brother, James (Xavier Samuel), two Sydney lads who, in a stylish monochromatic opening sequence, flee a violent father with their mum, Kat (Robyn Malcolm) and establish a life for themselves in the Margaret River region of Western Australia. Out of necessity, they construct a new form of surfboard and make their own wetsuits, and their handiwork proves popular with the local waxheads.

The brothers’ ambitions to grow the business are stifled by near-sighted bank managers and small-minded small-town cops who think the surfer/hippy lifestyle is a drug-filled waste of time. The greatest threat to the Kelly boys’ dreams is the local bikie gang chapter – headed by a particularly malevolent Steve Bastoni as Miller – which runs a heroin trade with links back to James’ friend Gus (Aaron Glenane, impactful in a small role).

Floating above all this small-town angst is Sam Worthington’s JB, a freelance sports photojournalist whose rainbow-coloured bus rattles into town just as the brothers need a guru-like ally. In tow is Hawaiian surfer-chick Lani (South African born, New Zealand-based actress Lesley-Ann Brandt), whose own passion for life inspires Andrew.

There are certainly familiar beats in O’Neill’s screenplay (he shares story credit with Tim Duffy); the rags-to-riches underdog narrative is hardly a new one. What sets Drift apart is the detail to character and the dexterity with which the production moves through the tropes. The film could very easily have devolved into a cornball family drama/sports soap opera, but it remains both steadfastly likable and quietly compelling throughout.

The pacing stumbles slightly in the third act, when the bikie/drug-running subplot collides with the surf-contest/familial tension story; there is a sense that in trying to honour both strands, the film pushed out its running time unduly. There is also a coda-like wrap-up involving JB that feels like it may have been the quickest way to tie up loose ends.

In most other respects, however, Drift if a terrific piece of local entertainment. As expected, the coastline cinematography of Geoffrey Hall (Chopper, Red Dog) is breathtaking at times, as is the immersive use of ultra-lite camera rigs to capture the surfing action.

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1 hour 53 min