Review by David Lee Scales
The Goodwin Project appeared on our radar 5 years ago with the above glorious trailer. As an expectant fan, in that interim anticipation turned to apathy. Then, completely unexpectedly and with little fanfare, last month a movie called “Given” appeared on Netflix.
What happened during the last 5 years? Production snafu? Is it still a documentary? Why the name change? Well, it’s retitled, named after their toddler aged son. After viewing the film and considering the 5 years of production, it seems as though they gathered footage over an extensive period without a real objective and then attempted, unsuccessfully, to create a narrative in post-production.
The film is narrated by Given, told from his perspective, and follows his father’s (Aamion) fable about a fish so large that wherever it swims it creates big waves and shifts the tides. The family goes on a journey propelled by the promise that if you catch the fish, you’ll have the spirit of the sea inside you.
Given narrating the film feels very contrived and I can’t help but wonder if they’ve actually hired a child actor or if they gave Given a script that the director wrote, which by the way, the director Jess Bianchi did write (as stated in the film’s credits). Her writing credit is evident upon viewing because 4 years olds don’t actually say things like, “The underwater world is like a whole different universe”.
The contrived fable and scripted narration of Given is actually accentuated by the few raw, natural scenes that they left in the film, like when Aamion is gutting a fish on the side of the boat and Given is genuinely concerned that the fish is going to flop off the boat back into the water. Aamion explains that he doesn’t want to get blood in the boat and that he’s holding it securely. Though Given doesn’t argue, he still can’t rest assured so he furrows his brow waiting to see his dinner jump back into the sea. It’s a true moment and a beautiful lesson from a father. Those moments are golden, sincere, and more accurately represent what I believe the Goodwin’s were trying to convey with this film.
The visuals are stunning, but Given fails as a story. There is almost zero character development. We hear nothing from Daize (Given’s mother) and almost nothing from Aamion, both of whom seem infinitely interesting.
The film is most successful when it gives us a taste of the local culture, like when they show how rubber is made from trees in Thailand or how families in South Africa build handmade drums and each family is responsible for one tone that gets passed down from generation to generation.
There are also examples of successful visual narratives, like when they’re living in a bus in New Zealand, showing how they bathe the kids, hunt and eat, and just going through the process of their day. But for the most part, the film zips through locations. 10 minutes into the film I turned to my girl and said, “We’ve already been through 4 countries. Can you even name the 4? Seems like a tremendous amount of expense and production to not really develop any story in each country. Or if nothing happened in that country to add to advance the story, then why even include it in the film?”
Ultimately, like with the act of surfing itself, the subject matter is so stunning to look at that this film may be worth a viewing just on a completely cursory level. It will serve as an incredible momento of their family trip around the world. Unfortunately, in this golden era of documentary filmmaking, Given under delivers not only on the promise of it’s trailer from 5 years ago, but on the potential of what it could have been; a coming of age tale of a boy (which would have required a conflict and resolution). It could have been a Nat-geo style examination of culture. It could have been a character study of a father, a mother, or perhaps most interestingly, the grandfather. Or at the very least, it could have just been an honest documentary about why Aamion and Daize chose to take their toddler and newborn around the world. It could have examined some of their concerns, challenges, how the finances of such trip work, and whether or not the end justified the means.
But Given wasn’t any of that. What it was was a cinematic marvel that lacked character development so significantly that I didn’t even care why we were on this 15 country journey in the first place. What’s worse is that they kept reminding me that the reason for the journey was because they were chasing a fabled big fish.
In the end, I’m not regretful that I spent 74 minutes watching the film, the cinematography and being able to witness the beauty and happiness of the Goodwin family validated the time that I invested. What I am regretful about is that the filmmakers working in the surf space don’t do a better job telling our stories. Who is Aamion? His dad is a character I’d love to know. Who is Daize? Why did you actually take your young family on this trip, and what were some of the lessons learned? While the film is lovely to look at, it failed to satisfy any of the curiosities that were planted from that first trailer 5 years ago.
Review by David Lee Scales and first appeared on Spit! podcast episode number 94
Learn more about the film at GivenTheMovie.com