According to the Buddhists, the bodhi tree is where one finds enlightenment. Point Break named one of its lead, existentially inclined characters after said tree, although director Kathryn Bigelow displayed little interest in examining the tenets of Buddhism, using the name as purchase for its band of surfer brothers rather than philosophical interrogation. Dawn Patrol, on the other hand, about a tight-knit community of surfers, can’t even be bothered with larger questions of creed or masculine code, as director Daniel Petrie Jr. aims instead to unironically drum up the bro-isms before insisting that the film’s first half has actually been a cautionary tale for unchecked aggression and spur-of-the-moment violence.
John (Scott Eastwood) is a nice-guy surfer who spends his time on the beaches of Ventura County with his brother, Ben (Chris Brochu), and pops, Trick (Jeff Fahey). The trio bemoan the presence of local Hispanics “swimming in their Mexi-suits,” before a brawl erupts following a ploy to see Donna (Kim Matula), Ben’s ex-girlfriend, topless. That’s about as nuanced as the filmmakers get, since characters are prone to stating exactly what they’re thinking and feeling at all times. Even the film’s frame narrative, which has John being held captive by a masked assailant, commences with John saying to the offender: “I’ve got to tell you my story on the way.”
That story is more or less a series of caricatures, botched schemes, and instances of blatant misogyny, particularly as its directed at Donna, who all characters deem a desperate, ready-to-get-naked whore. As her mother, Vickie (Dendrie Taylor), says to her at one point: “You keep this up and you’re going to turn into a big, slutty nothing.” The “keeping up” involves generally promiscuous behavior, including sleeping with a local named Miguel (Gabriel De Santi), much to Ben’s chagrin. Ben’s the type of guy who gets liquored up and breaks shit, or makes comments like, “She looks 16…better than 14.” Yet the film merely sees him as something of a loose canon, a bit wily, but a well-intentioned kid at his core. Dawn Patrol licenses alpha-male egotism to extensive degrees, like when Ben practically kidnaps Donna from a date with Miguel, which ends with the pair screwing on a beach following a marriage proposal. These aren’t meant as absurdist ribbings, but an end point, where adolescent tenderness is morphing into adult desire.
Set in the summer of 2008, the film milks real estate woes and recession anxieties for narrative heft; Trick has lost his job because his employer is hiring immigrant workers and when the family is having a barbeque, a “McCain 2008” campaign sign hangs in the background. The characters obviously harbor racial tensions and financial resentments, but all of this is subordinated to a trite revenge premise that makes nothing of the economic constraints. Moreover, ethnic divides are used as a punchline. At a funeral, one character remarks to another that the recently deceased “liked the beaners.” The opposite of enlightenment, Dawn Patrol hides its anxieties behind a mélange of third-rate grit and playful xenophobia.