Surviving Summer was one of 2022’s unexpected TV pleasures: a ten-episode young-adult surfing melodrama, made in Victoria by Joanna Werner (Crazy Fun Park, The Newsreader) and Josh Mapleston (Doctor Doctor, Maximum Choppage).
It’s best understood as ‘Dance Academy for surfing‘ – a mix of spectacular performance, intense physical and mental pressure, and romantic entanglements among fit teens, soundtracked to pop-music montages.
Netflix audiences everywhere caught its wave – Surviving Summer hit the streamer’s top-10 in more than 42 countries. Now it’s back for eight more episodes, with new characters and more drama – and a soft-pedalled same-sex romantic storyline.
The show’s fish-out-of-water-gets-in-the-water premise is irresistible. Ungovernable skateboarder Summer (Sky Katz) has been expelled from every school in Brooklyn. She gets sent to her Aussie mum Margot’s (Kate Beahan) Great Ocean Road hometown of Shorehaven – the show’s fictional answer to Anglesea, Fairhaven and Airey’s Inlet – where her impulsive, warm-hearted but frequently selfish behaviour causes chaos among a tight-knit group of young surfers gunning for professional careers.
Season 1 director Sian Davies is back, filling Surviving Summer with gloss and energy. Joining her is Christiaan van Vuuren, who’s well known for his comedy work but is new to directing drama. He acquits himself well on episode 3, in which our young hopefuls head to Byron Bay for a sponsorship photo shoot.
Driven by surf unit producer Fran Derham, the spectacular action cinematography captures the kinetic and sensory qualities of surfing to show why these groms love it. The lithe young stars, many of whom can actually surf, are filmed at wave level, or surfacing joyfully like the Little Mermaid. There are also ‘board’s-eye view’ close-ups of their feet on surfboards and skateboards.
But the interpersonal stuff is the addictive part. As well as who’d make the state team, win the competition or land a sponsor, and the Shorehaven surfers’ rivalry with other clubs, the main throughline of season 1 was Summer’s romantic tension with Ari (Kai Lewins), a complete golden retriever of a grom with resting bewildered face. In the season finale, Ari and Summer kissed at the airport as Summer left Australia, vowing to stay in touch.
Now, dragging along her unenthusiastic mum, Summer’s back in Shorehaven to try out for the Victorian under-18 surf team. Having mainly goofed around when she was last here, she’s now frothing for surfing, and has been seriously practising at Rockaway Beach. But is her recklessness still her biggest liability?
A lot can happen in a year
Keen to surprise Ari, who’s been starring in her aquatic, mildly erotic daydreams, Summer makes another rash decision to gatecrash the tryouts after being knocked back. Ari is indeed impressed by her improved surfing skills – and astonishingly, she makes the team!
But Summer’s in for a ruder surprise. Ari has a girlfriend now: blonde Queensland babe Wren Radic (Annabel Wolfe), the new Victorian team captain.
Ari’s smitten with Wren, but his little sister Honey (Asmara Feik) is openly on Team Summer, which I love. For her part, Wren immediately hates Summer’s guts, calls her an ‘entitled, attention-seeking brat’ (accurate!) and sets out to sabotage her at every turn.
In case it’s not yet clear, Surviving Summer has torn away my critical distance like a Frosty Fruits wrapper on a January scorcher. I’d be raving about it to my mates at school, if my high-school days weren’t (mumblemumble) years ago.
It’s determinedly escapist and full of committed performances – even though the characters have frankly absurd names like Griff Temple (Mitchell Hardaker), Tuscany Bray (Emmanuelle Mattana) … and this season’s pink-haired, nose-pierced bad boy, Baxter Radic (Josh MacQueen). (‘Don’t be an anti-Baxxter!’ he says to Summer, as I screeched with mirth.)
Surviving Summer. Image: Netflix.
The Radic family have come to Shorehaven for a fresh start after Bax, Wren’s older brother, was kicked off the Queensland youth surf team for setting fire to the NSW team’s clubhouse. He and Summer share an energy that could turn romantic.
And who’s the new Victorian team coach? Not Shorehaven’s own Manu Tetanui (Chris Alosio) – it’s the eldest Radic, Elo (Olympia Valance), who basically raised her siblings while their burnout parents were off ‘chasing the stoke in Indo’. So, her coaching will be totally cool, then.
Surviving Summer has even less parental supervision this season. When Summer hosts a ‘team bonding’ party at the ‘strictly no parties’ Airbnb Margot has rented, danger mounts stressfully in a way that reminded me of those anti-peer-pressure videos from high school.
Although Summer is frequently exasperating, she’s a joyous, spontaneous antidote to the proto-professional way her friends treat surfing. These kids are floundering under their own expectations, grimly saying, ‘This is my last chance!’ Their carefree grom days are but a brief window that, if missed, will close forever.
Bodhi Mercer (Savannah La Rain) is panicking that a run of lacklustre performances is ruining her career; her model-gorgeous looks are making her sponsor pigeonhole her as a bikini babe. Bodhi’s also hurt that her ex-boyfriend, Brazilian-born Marlon Sousa (João Gabriel Marinho), is now crushing on her bestie, Poppy Tetanui (actual teen surf champion Lilliana Bowery). All this draws her closer to the confident and successful mean girl, Wren.
Marlon, too, is in struggletown. He’s moping on the beach, disconsolately strumming a ukulele (which I found richly funny) and generally broadcasting mid vibes. Meanwhile, Ari’s landed his first sponsorship deal, but has such a monumentally bland personality (Summer reassures him that he’s more ‘salted caramel’ than ‘vanilla’) that he can’t figure out what to post on Instagram.
His mulleted dad Thommo (Justin Clare) worries Ari’s going to end up burned out by the self-performative demands of pro surfing because of his clinical anxiety and PTSD – which Summer helped Ari tackle last season.
But parents just don’t understand the Faustian bargain these kids are making. They know they can’t openly push back on racism, sexism and commercial exploitation from the gatekeepers of the sport they love. So their stress has to express itself in interpersonal rivalries and petty cruelties. They can’t make waves – just surf them.
That’s why Summer’s chaotic presence feels radical. She may be careless, but she’s never cruel. Poppy might fixate on being the GOAT, but Summer’s the scapegoat: she always gets the blame, but it’s through her that her friends can see what’s right.
Surviving Summer is now streaming on Netflix