Entertainment Ride the Wave film review: The epic journey of Tiree’s teenage surfing sensation
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Martyn Robertson's film paints an absorbing portrait of Scottish surfer Ben Larg, writes Roger Cox, but it’s also a perceptive study of the trials of parenting
Premiering this weekend at the London Film Festival, Ride the Wave is a Scottish-made documentary about Ben Larg, a teenage surfer from the idyllic Hebridean island of Tiree who travels around the world to compete in similarly idyllic locations in Portugal and Japan. It might sound like an undemanding watch, but don't be fooled: it's anything but.
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Early on, we learn that Ben is being bullied at school, and we're not just talking about other kids calling him names. In a heart-wrenching scene, his mum, Iona, describes one particular incident that left the whole family reeling.
This violent episode provides the catalyst for the film's key moment: Iona and her husband Marti's decision to take Ben, 14, and his two younger sisters out of school and travel to Ireland, so that Ben can follow his dream of surfing giant waves at legendary breaks like Aileen's in County Clare and Mullaghmore Head in County Sligo.
Just to be clear: these are places that most experienced surfers will a) discuss in hushed tones and b) never, ever want to surf. When the swell gets big at these spots, the potential for serious injury and death is very real, and director Martyn Robertson does an intelligent job of highlighting the dangers without sensationalising them. Partly he does this through his use of breathtaking slow-motion footage that emphasizes the overwhelming size and power of the waves, but he also makes good use of a conversation between Ben, Marti and Iona and Irish big wave safety expert Peter Conroy, who offers to take Ben under his wing and teach him the finer points of big wave surfing, including how to catch waves while being towed behind a jetski.
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By way of preparation, Conroy shows the Largs video footage of Ireland's big wave spots at their most terrifying, and he also shows them some horrific injuries and harrowing rescues. "This is what you don't want to see," he says, as something resembling a butcher's shop appears on the TV screen they're all looking at, "an open femur fracture." He then goes on to describe how the injured surfer in this case initially thought there was someone bobbing in the water beside him after being hit by a wave, before he realised that he was actually kicking himself in the back of the head with the floppy, disjointed remains of his own smashed-up limb.
Following their conversation with Conroy, then, the Largs are under no illusions about what the consequences of surfing these spots might be for Ben. Yet, as a counterbalance to the stark realities laid out by Conroy, there's another local surfer, Ollie O'Flaherty, a mellow, open-hearted soul who spends time hanging out with Ben and chatting to him about what surfing big waves means to him. "You can spend so much time ruminating," he says, "lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling and imagining... if I got washed in here, or if I wiped out there... if this happened, if that happened... but all those things just stop when you're on the wave, and in the moment completely. If anybody catches a wave like that, they don't just do it once, they'll want to do it over and over again."
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To properly understand how Larg ended up talking big wave philosophy with O'Flaherty, though, sitting high up on the Cliffs of Moher overlooking the reef at Aileens, we first need to rewind a little to the initial third of the film, which shows Larg representing Scotland at various international contests in much smaller surf. He may have won the Scottish Under 18s title at the tender age of 12, but like countless talented surfers before him Larg seems to find the constraints and pressures of having to perform to order in timed heats perpetually frustrating. In a sense, then, his desire to surf big waves is as much about looking for new ways to express himself in the water as it is about processing troubles back home.
And Robertson takes us even further back in time, too, to a story Ben wrote when he was in primary school, in which he is running through a forest with his surfboard under his arm, pursued by a dark shadow. The shadow tells him he's going to die, but he goes surfing anyway. "I realised I really shouldn't be in the water," he writes, "then I saw a huge wave..."
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Robertson's film is excellent at teasing out all the different things driving Ben towards his date with destiny at Mullaghmore – the desire to prove himself, the need to evolve as a surfer, his deep-seated fascination with giant waves. Its greatest achievement, though, is the way it also manages to be a film about parenthood: Ben may be at the centre of the film, but any parents watching will surely identify with Marti and Iona as they try to strike the right balance between protecting their son and allowing him to follow his dreams. It’s a universal dilemma, of course, but few will have to deal with it on such an epic scale.
Ride the Wave is at the London Film Festival on 16 and 17 October, see. It will be released in cinemas in March 2022, see
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