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Big vs Small review – pioneering surfer tackling 50ft waves and a turbulent past | Movies

You might call it aquatic fallacy: when mountainous waves and heaving white waters seem metaphorical of the ebb and flow of human feelings. That notion is inescapable watching Portuguese big-wave rider Joana Andrade in the pit at the storied Atlantic break Nazaré, thanks to her generosity in what is, for the surfing world, an unusually candid psychological portrait. She shows as much courage sharing her story of childhood abuse and recovery as in tackling a 50ft wave – and the former will mean more to fellow survivors.

A third of the way through Minna Dufton’s documentary, Andrade drops a bombshell: as a 12-year-old she was groomed, drugged and sexually abused by a family friend. There is often a sneaking sense that plenty of damaged people have strutted around surfing’s upper echelons, but here the masochistic drive to confront and master the biggest that nature can throw at you is fully explained. Andrade, 5ft and short-limbed, stuck with the sport even when she initially struggled to stand up; in time this unlikely looking athlete, looking for challenges to quell her turmoil, eventually graduated to tow-in surfing. “Do whatever you like to me,” she tells the ocean. “I surrender. Maybe I will die.”

But she continues to seek out means of self-renewal. Here, Andrade trains in static apnea and under-ice swimming with Finnish free-diver Johanna Nordblad; another method of pinpointing and neutralising inner turbulence. She also has a tattoo that reminds her: “Don’t forget where home is.” With her solo obsessions, Andrade says she feels different to the rest of her family – but it’s clear by the end that she now knows to ask for their love, too. Dufton’s film sticks largely to the self-empowerment template and dutifully buffs Andrade’s accolades, as the first Portuguese woman to surf Nazaré. But her real achievements are the invisible ones under the surface.

Big vs Small is released in UK cinemas on 21 October.

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash