Ocean Tribe (1997)

Inspired by the true story of Bob Cook, a young cancer victim, Ocean Tribe, the visually striking feature debut of writer-director Will Geiger, is a genre film with a twist: a serio-comic exploration of male camaraderie that despite its death motif is uplifting.  Prospects for theatrical release are solid for a road movie whose attractive ensemble–and spectacular surfing scenes–compensate for a rather thin and familiar story.  


In its iconography, narrative structure, and thematic concerns, Ocean Tribe is a well-crafted male-buddy feature. Geiger follows the conventions of the road movie format, but he adds something new: a mystical ambiance, based on parallels drawn between a pod of dolphins and a close-knit clique of friends. In voice-over narration that sets the tone of the entire film, protagonist Noah (Gregg Rainwater) tells of a pod of dolphins that spent three days swimming around a dying member, trying to keep it afloat by taking turns pushing it back to the surface for air, until finally the wild ocean had its way.


As story begins, Bobby (Vaughn Roberts) is at the hospital dying of leukemia.  His friends try to talk him into a surfing trip to Mexico, for sake of the good old days, but to no avail. Undeterred, they kidnap him, making sure that he has sufficient medical supplies for the duration of the journey.  Out of solidarity for their terminally ill pal, who's now bald, they all shave their heads, despite objections from handsome Lance (Mark Matheisen) that it would damage his acting career. 

The quintet hits the road in the huge, wildly painted Oldsmobile ambulance they had used as a surfwagon in high school. From then on, story chronicles the usual male-bonding rituals: heavy drinking, arguments about past (and present) misunderstandings, physical wrestling and emotional reconciliations–above all surfing, which serves as a unifying rite overcoming all other obstacles.

Ocean Tribe
is a celebration of unconditional friendship, one that surpasses in scope and intimacy relationships with women.  Geiger is sensitive enough to realize that though Bobby is the one facing death, all four of his friends are dealing with major life-crises.  Hence, Noah, who married a Bosnian wife for the green card but then fell in love with her, is not sure whether he's ready to be a father; Lance is an ambitious actor, but so far he has appeared in “erotic” movies; and Schwartz (Robert Caso) is a tormented medical student “good with books, but squeamish about blood and guts.”


Narrative gets soft and predictable as it goes along, turning into a reaffirmation of the men's faith in themselves and in their futures.  And the ending, with Noah and wife embracing their newly-born baby on the beach, following Bobby's death in the ocean, is too pat and symmetrical. Nonetheless, Geiger, who acquits himself better as helmer than scripter, shows a measure of good taste in modulating his yarn and admirable facility in coaxing uniformly good performances from his appealing thesps. 


Noah's lyrical words, set over the graceful imagery of dolphins swimming in the ocean, and accompanied a the 16th century choral piece, “Dum Transisset Sabbatum,” lends the film an aura of visual beauty and transcendental mysticism.  Shot entirely on location, in California's Bodega Bay and Mexico's Baja and Todos Santos Island, production values of this low-budget effort are first-rate across the board, with special kudos to Harris Done's superlative lensing and Jeremy Kasten's seamless editing.                

A SeaReel production. Produced, directed and written by Will Geiger.  Executive producers, Franco Zacchia, Michela Conti. Co-executive producer, Alberto Aleotti.  Camera (Foto-Kem, color), Harris Done; editor, Jeremy Kasten; music, Sean Murray; art direction, Steve Espinoza; set decoration, Jon Klein; costume design, Georgia Alemanni; sound (Dolby), Elliott Cowand Jr.; sound effects provided by Clancy's Sound Vibrations; line producer, Peter Yuval; assistant director, Enrico Mastracchi Manes; casting, Antonia Conti, Brad Long. Reviewed at a Paramount screening room (In L.A. Indie Film Festival), April 6, 1997. Running time: 106 min.

Noah……….Gregg Rainwater

Schwartz………Robert Caso

Jeb……………Troy Fazio

Lance………Mark Matheisen

Bob………..Vaughn Roberts

Padre Delbert…Brian Brophy

Natalia……Natasha Ivanova

Nurse Susan…….Beth Bates