Review: ‘Facing Monsters,’ starring Kerby Brown

November 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kerby Brown in “Facing Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

“Facing Monsters”

Directed by Bentley Dean

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia, the documentary film “Facing Monsters” features an all-white group of people discussing Australian “slab wave” surfer Kerby Brown, with the documentary having a lot of showing footage of him doing daredevil surfing.

Culture Clash: Members of Brown’s family have concerns about the dangers of him surfing as he gets older and more vulnerable to physical injuries. 

Culture Audience: “Facing Monsters” will appeal primarily to people interested in surfing movies or movies about athletes who have to face decisions on when they’ll retire.

Kerby Brown in “Facing Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Level 33 Entertainment)

The documentary “Facing Monsters” adeptly balances the story of Australian surfer Kerby Brown with captivating footage of his talent and candid confessions about his private life. The movie’s title refers to monster surf waves and Brown’s personal demons. You don’t have to know anything about surfing and you don’t have be a fan of surfing to appreciate this memorable movie.

Directed by Bentley Dean, “Facing Monsters” (which was filmed entirely in Australia) isn’t a comprehensive biography that delves into Brown’s entire life. His childhood, teenage years and young adulthood (he was born and raised in western Australia) are mentioned but not explored in depth. Instead, “Facing Monsters” focuses primarily on a period of about one year in Brown’s life, when he was at a crossroads about deciding how much longer he was going to continue the dangerous sport of “slab wave” surfing. At the time of filming “Facing Monsters” in 2020, Brown was 36 or 37.

“Slab wave” surfing is known as one of the riskiest forms of surfing, because it’s about riding a “slab wave”—a wave that is very thick, as opposed to very tall. Because of this thickness, a “slab wave” can much deadlier than a tall wave, if it crashes on a surfer. It’s this element of danger that’s a big part of the thrill for surf enthusiasts such as Brown.

His younger brother Cortney Brown is his best friend and constant companion on surfing excursions. When the two brothers go out on the waves together, Cortney often drives the boat or jet ski when Kerby and his surfboard need to be dragged by a rope. In the documentary, Kerby describes Cortney as “the best brother … He’s my wing man, my partner in crime.”

Not everyone in his family is enamored with the brothers’ surfing activities. Kerby’s father Glenn Brown, who is a crayfish fisherman, comes right out and says that he gets nervous every time Kerby and Cortney go to certain areas that are considered highly dangerous for surfers. The movie begins with footage of the brothers surfing in Gabagaba, in the midwest coast of Australia. Glenn comments that he doesn’t like this area for his sons to surf. Every time that his sons go to the area, Glenn says he feels like it’s “like going to their funeral.”

When Glenn was young, he was a musician who frequently wasn’t home because of his travels. And so, Glenn missed out on seeing Kerby develop a passion for surfing when Kerby was a child. “I regret it deeply,” Glenn says in the documentary. Kerby’s mother Nola Brown seems supportive of her sons’ surfing activities, but she has less screen time than Glenn and doesn’t say much in this documentary.

Early on in the documentary, Kerby says in a voiceover: “The ocean is where I go to peace and a place where I belong. It’s where I feel free. Without that connection, I don’t feel like I’m the person I’m supposed to be. I lose that balance. It’s where I feel most alive.”

As a young adult, Kerby says that he tried competitive surfing to make a living, but he gave it up because he didn’t like the rules and politics of entering competitions. Instead, Kerby made a name for himself as an independent daredevil surfer who made money through sponsorships. Kerby says that he knew from an early age that he was never meant to have an office job. When he can’t get money for surfing, Kerby often takes work where he can be near the ocean, such as oil-rig jobs.

Kerby also talks about what is often an obsession for surfers: finding and riding the biggest wave they can possibly find. “Facing Monsters” follows him on this quest. Cortney talks about Kerby getting many surfing injuries and still going out on the waves after barely recovering from those injuries. Kerby describes how it feels to be crushed by an ocean wave: “It’s like your skull is in a vice. You can’t black out.” Cortney comments, “It’s an addiction, really, surfing these kinds of waves.”

Speaking of addiction, Kerby opens up about the period of time in his life when he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He says his addictions were at their worst when he didn’t have surfing to keep him occupied. His on-again/off-again girlfriend Nicole Jardine comments in the documentary about Kerby’s self-destruction: “That was hard to watch. I’m not his mother. I’m his partner. He had to make better choices.”

Kerby had moved to Perth to be with Jardine. And he says he cleaned up his life after the birth of his and Jardine’s first child: a son named Phoenix, who was born in 2012 or 2013. The couple also has a daughter named Sahara, who was born in 2017 or 2018. Phoenix and Sahara are both shown in the documentary. And not surprisingly, Phoenix shows signs that he’s picked up an enthusiasm for surfing.

Jardine has mixed emotions about Kerby’s surfing passion. She thinks his type of surfing is “dangerous” but “uplifting” and “positive.” It goes without saying that she would rather have Kerby surfing for his own peace of mind than damaging himself through drugs and alcohol.

Kerby says his determination to chase the biggest monster waves in Australia was the main reason why he decided to move from Perth to Wadandi Boodja, which is known for having some of the biggest monster waves in Australia. Kerby says moving away from his brother was “the hardest decision I ever had to make.” The brothers still have a very close bond, and when they’re together, they inevitable surf together.

“Facing Monsters” shows a fateful surfing trip that Kerby and Kortney took to Waudaarn, on the southern coast of Western Australia. Before this trip, Kerby is shown saying goodbye and giving hugs to Jardine and Sahara. Jardine looks worried bur accepting of the fact that there’s nothing anyone can do when Kerby has his mind made to go surfing in a dangerous area.

Kerby says in a voiceover, “There’s a huge fear of not coming home to my family and not being there for my kids. I really don’t want to have those thoughts going through my head while I’m trying to do what I do. I don’t see what I’m doing as a reckless thing anymore. I try to be calculated with it.”

Despite the best intentions and all of his surfing experiences, Kerby gets an enormous setback on this surfing trip. This setback is briefly glimpsed near the beginning of the documentary, which circles back to this harrowing moment in the last third of the film. The remaining part of the movie chronicles how Kerby overcame this obstacle. Kerby’s father Glenn wrote a song about this experience called “World’s Been Changed,” which Glenn performs in the documentary.

“Facing Monsters” wisely took the approach of not having a lot of talking-head interviews and lets a lot of the surfing footage speak for itself. Outside of Kerby’s immediate family, the only other people featured in the documentary are his surfing pals Rit Rayner and Chris Shanahan, as well as Cortney’s girlfriend Imogen Caldwell. The documentary is about Kerby, but a great deal of the story is also about the brotherly bond of Kerby and Cortney.

One of the best aspects of “Facing Monsters” is the gorgeous cinematography by Rick Rifici. Viewers will feel as if they are almost going through a virtual-reality experience of being right there on the waves. It’s an exhilarating feeling that should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

The movie also has some other artistic touches, such as opening with a striking aerial shot of Kerby lying face up in body of water that is salmon pink. This artistic shot is shown again in the movie when Kerby has his setback in Waudaarn, in order to contrast the high and lows of surfing. “Facing Monsters” stands out for having numerous majestic scenes of powerful ocean waves. However, the movie wouldn’t be as compelling without showing the strengths of human resilience and following a life passion when facing obstacles.

Level 33 Entertainment released “Facing Monsters” in select U.S. cinemas on October 14, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on November 15, 2022. “Facing Monsters” was released in Australia on March 10, 2022.

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