I met Kelly Slater this week, and, much to my surprise, was totally starstruck. I’ve met incredible athletes before, but something about meeting Slater—maybe his illustrious dating history?—left me totally tongue-tied, daftly grinning at the tanned, bald, blue-eyed legend in from of me. I was at the world premiere of TGR’s newest surf film, Proximity, in New York City, and much of the rest of the evening left me similarly dumbfounded.
Proximity operates on a simple concept: the filmmakers pair legendary athletes like Slater, Rob Machado, Dave Rastovich, and Shane Dorian with young guns like Albee Layer, Steph Gilmore, Craig Anderson, and John John Florence, and sends the unlikely duos off to gorgeous surf destinations around the world. From dreamy Baja treasure-hunting with hand-drawn maps to impossible conditions in lush, stormy Scotland, the surfers and film team, namely director Taylor Steele and director of photography Todd Glaser, capture the most poignant, compelling parts of surfing. A tandem wave surfed like a dance by Gilmore and Rastovich stood out as one of the film’s most stunning waves (Layer called it the most beautiful wave he’d seen filmed), and a consequential, impossible-looking slab found by Layer and Dorian off Scotland’s cliff-bound coast was the most jaw-dropping.
The pairings were perfect, particularly the combination of Florence and Slater. Similarly hyper-competitive, focused, and widely considered the best in the game, they played off each other’s energy brilliantly during a journey to the islands of the South Pacific together. As they surf, rib each other, and talk careers—including interesting insights on their relationship with organized competition—Slater emerges as a more evolved version of Florence: the sage who has learned to harness all the intensity Florence demonstrates both in the water and on land and turn it into a sustainable career.
During their near-bust of a trip to Scotland, Layer and Dorian prove themselves to be patient, good-natured companions on land, and a relentless, hard-headed, aggressive pair in the water. Attempting to surf a short, steep wedge in rough water abutting huge cliffs, Layer and Dorian were unsure if the unforgiving wave—which they found while blindly scouting the coast—was even surfable. Driven by the frustration of days of flat water and with plenty of their characteristic tenacity (up-and-coming Layer is known for surfing impossible, terrifying waves), they eventually make a go of it.
Rastovich and Gilmore make for a compelling pair as well. The legendary Kiwi surfer known as Rasta and the grinning, oft-unbeatable Australian bring a free-spiritedness to the film that balances well the intensity of Slater and Florence. Director Steele captured their long drives up and down the Baja coast and the requisite rambling, deep conversations, giving the audience a rare chance to peer inside the lives of two of the most well-loved surfers in the world.
The unique setup gave the audience a chance to get to know these surfers as they got to know each other, but the broader messaging left something to be desired. A bland mix of “live life to the fullest” cliches and surface-level nods to environmentally friendly living, Proximity’s attempt to have a unifying theme felt at once forced and not fully fleshed-out. Action sport films usually suffer when filmmakers ask the athletes to explain why they do what they do and why what they’re doing is important. The surfing should speak for itself, and the time spent on philosophical narration would have been better used talking about the logistics of the trips themselves—I wasn’t sure where in the world we were for large portions of the film, and found myself wishing for more context.
A gallery show along the perimeter of the premiere space featured work by photographer and DP Todd Glaser, whose photography captures the many moods of the ocean and her riders with empathy, curiosity, and a sense of wonder. Surfboards designed by artist Richard Phillips, who led a panel with the athletes, Steele, and Glaser after the film, were on display as well. The premiere also featured a virtual reality short film of each of the four trips the film featured, which was a remarkable look at the possible future of action sports filmmaking. As compelling issue-based narratives continue to elude filmmakers, immersion—riding a wave from Rastovich’s perspective, checking out the surf from a cliff with Dorian—offers viewers just a little more of what it is we love about films like Proximity: a chance to drop in to the lives and experiences of the best athletes (and adventurers) in the world.
The following evening, May 4, TGR hosted the public premiere of Proximity and launched an international world tour, which will be making stops along the California coast for the next few weeks. You can check out tour dates, buy tickets, and even request to host a screening here.