Sara and Ben Intonato talk about the journey from discovering that their son, Rocco, had autism to teaching Rocco how to surf. The 12-year-old Long Island boy and his family are the subjects of a documentary called "Rocco Up." Credit: Randee Daddona

Meet Rocco Intonato, a seventh grader at Montauk Public School. He’s autistic. He’s nonverbal. He’s a surfer.

“I’m proud that Rocco’s a surfer — an autistic surfer,” said his dad, Ben Intonato, 42, who describes his son’s personal style as a sort of “dance” on the board. “He surfs in his own unusual way.”

The 12-year-old’s one-of-a-kind catch-a-wave technique is chronicled in “Rocco Up,” an award-winning short documentary screened at the 30th annual Hamptons International Film Festival that concluded today.

Watching “Rocco Up,” which its creators call “a passion project,” you might be reminded of the 1976 Oscar-
winning movie “Rocky.” Beyond sound-alike titles, the themes of challenge, grit, determination and cheer-worthy triumph strike similar rousing chords.

Shot in Montauk over 2½ years, the mini-movie captures Rocco’s story along with his family’s fathomless love for him. It also covers how members of a Suffolk County surfing community stepped up to help one of their own.

Rocco Intonato has his own personal style, a sort of...

Rocco Intonato has his own personal style, a sort of “dance” on the surfboard. Here he's at Ditch Plains in October 2022. Credit: Randee Daddona

“As a special-needs parent, at times you feel very alone,” according to Ben. Since Rocco’s life-changing diagnosis when he was 2, Ben, like other parents in similar situations, has grappled with the thought that “nobody in the world can relate to you and you’re in this all by yourself.”

Rocco’s mom, Sara Intonato, 41, was “totally blind-sided” a decade ago. “I don’t think anyone expects it. I was the classic overachiever,” she said, adding that she was a yogi who made health and wellness a top priority. “I took really good care of myself.”

The couple, who met at Boston University and later tied the knot, faced a hard reality shared by many parents. About 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Admitting that your life will never be normal the way you saw it is incredibly difficult,” according to Sara. “It’s a grieving process, and it took Ben and I time to grieve.”

Giving themselves permission “to feel those feelings was necessary,” Sara told Newsday. “It was crucial.” Had they not, she added, they’d “probably still be feeling them. I don’t pity Rocco. I don’t pity us. I love our life.”

Scenes captured in the mini-documentary "Rocco Up" include Rocco Intonato's introduction to the ocean in Miami Beach with his father, Ben, and Rocco and Ben heading out to surf in spite of the snow in Montauk in 2020. | Photos by Sara Intonato (ocean); John Madere

Ocean introduction

Sara captured the day when Ben introduced Rocco to the ocean as a tiny infant, a moment that appears in the film. “He seemed to be in this meditative state,” according to Ben. “Totally at peace.” With Ben as his instructor, Rocco has become a strong swimmer.

He’s a kid who loves being in the water year-round — either the ocean or their pool in Montauk, where they’ve lived full time since 2020 after moving from Huntington. Before that, the Intonatos, including their daughter, Aurelia, who’s 11, neurotypical and a surfer, hiked and soaked up nature in Heckscher State Park.

Raised in Syosset, Ben always felt the intoxicating tug of the ocean. He’s a vice president at Big Blue Ocean, a fishing business run by his mother, Meri. His happy place is riding the surf at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk. As Ben says in the film, he always dreamed that Rocco would share his passion — maybe even a party wave there.

“One of the most challenging but vital pieces of this puzzle as a parent is learning how to release the life you thought you were going to have so that you can embrace the life that is right in front of you,” Ben said.

Rocco’s introduction to surfing around age 4 was “a disaster,” said Ben. He switched to a body board and after making progress over time, returned to a surfboard with more success.

With his dad’s constant support and hard work over several years, Rocco developed his own surfing style. By the time he was around 7, Rocco was able to stand up on the board without clinging to his father.

“He used to hold onto my hair,” said Ben.

The community at Ditch Plains has become a kind of...

The community at Ditch Plains has become a kind of fan club for Rocco Intonato and his surfing journey. Credit: Randee Daddona

Finding community

In time he let go of his dad’s mane and stood tall on his own, and he continued to advance. Once upright, Rocco balanced himself, moved back and forth on the board, and rode it to the beach. He’d jump off when he reached the sand. Ben followed behind and would catch up with his son.

“About that time,” said Ben, “I started to look around and realized people were watching us.” It was hard to ignore. People on the beach who were stoked by what they saw cried out: “Rocco up!”

One of those observers was Kevin McCann, 70, a retired banker and a longtime surfer with a home on Long Island. Like Ben, he’s a surfing enthusiast who loves Ditch Plains.

He was drawn to the father and son and their teamwork as they surfed together on one board. “Ben would take this kid surfing all the time,” said McCann. “His commitment and dedication to his son inspired me.”

The two strangers also struck a deep, resonant chord for McCann. His brother, John, is blind and, McCann proudly boasted, a high achiever who went to Harvard Law School.

McCann, who says he’s “just really comfortable” around people with disabilities, gets credit in the documentary for the concept and as an executive producer.

“In 2019 I went up to Ben and I said that I have a friend who is a filmmaker,” McCann told Newsday. “I asked if it would be OK if I asked him if he could do a film about you and Rocco.”

When Ben told Sara about the encounter, she was skeptical. “I was, like, ‘Oh, that’s
nice,’ ” she said. “I figured he probably was just having too much rosé watching the sunset.”

A vital piece of Ben Intonato's relationship with his son is learning to “embrace the life that is right in front of you.” Here, Ben works with Rocco in the family's garage gym. Aurelia Intonato, Rocco's sister, helps him communicate using his "talking pad" as Rocco's service dog, Oakley, checks in. | Photos by Randee Daddona

An idea builds

It wasn’t wine talking. It was genuine admiration informed by his own family experiences. McCann introduced the Intonatos to John Madere, 67, an award-winning photographer who lives in New York City and Long Island. His specialty is portraits, and his portfolio features famous faces including that of Oprah Winfrey, as well as corporate leaders, surfers and others.

Over the past decade he’s branched into films. His award-winning 2012 short documentary, “Montauk,” features 20 locals talking about the surf-happy hamlet. “In video, people talk and move,” said Madere. “So it’s a deeper dive into people’s personalities.”

Madere began shooting “Rocco Up” in 2019, working it in between professional obligations and pandemic concerns. “The biggest challenge was dealing with unpredictable weather and surfing conditions,” he said.

Madere figures he spent 100 days shooting. He got certified to fly a drone, something he’d never done before. He used it to capture strikingly beautiful bird’s-eye images of the Intonatos in the water.

As he filmed, he interviewed local surfers and beachgoers; Wallace J. Nichols, an authority on the mental-health benefits of water; and others for their insights. He also shot Rocco doing homework with his mom.

“Rocco Up” doesn’t shy away from showing Rocco getting frustrated — “escalating,” as Sara called it. “At first, I was a little reluctant to show these negative scenes,” said Madere. “But then I realized you can’t sugarcoat things. I had to show how tough it is.”

Pruning hundreds of hours of material into a 21-minute documentary was a tall order. That assignment went to his longtime colleague Ruth Mamaril, the film’s editor and writer, who was delighted to climb aboard.

She had an emotional investment, said Madere. Her younger brother, Jason, has autism. “I wish there had been surf programs for him when he was younger,” she noted in the film’s website.

The Intonato family, from left, Ben, Rocco, Sara and Aurelia, walks the beach at Ditch Plains; earlier Sara helps Rocco with his wetsuit before he hits the waves. | Photos by Randee Daddona

Family on board

Rocco’s grandfather, Don Intonato, 73, runs Great Oceans, a fish business separate from his wife’s, and writes poetry. He never expected he’d become involved in moviemaking. If Rocco’s story has taught him anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Don founded Ditch Plains Productions to support “Rocco Up,” which on several counts has been a labor of love. Some of the creators donated their time. But promoting a movie and entering festivals isn’t free. It takes money to spread the word about a movie that has made a splash around the globe.

The documentary won a best editing prize at the 2022 Surfalorus Film Festival, a cinematic celebration of all things aquatic, held in September in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Announcing the win, the fest called the film “an inspiring tale of one family, and their use of the ocean as therapy for their son.” The movie won best documentary at the Korea International Short Film Festival.

Beyond prizes, “Rocco Up” has had a profound take-away for Don Intonato. “I realized that my son was just so much of a better father than I was,” he said. “I don’t know how he became this extraordinarily dedicated father. Ben and Sara are so devoted.”

And not just to Rocco.

Plans are in the works to make the documentary available online to share its hopeful message. Sara has become a neurodiverse-parenting consultant and is writing a spiritual guidebook for parents of kids with autism and other needs and disabilities.

Although doctors have told the couple that their son would face limitations in terms of communicating and participating in various activities, they have seen Rocco exceed others’ expectations. Like his surfing.

That said, they’re careful to point out that they don’t have all the answers. “I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, they’re trying to put their kid up on a pedestal,’ ” said Ben.

Still, they leave room for hope and celebrate their son’s accomplishments. “You don’t need a pool. You don’t need an ocean,” Ben said, adding that what’s essential is a place to be totally present. “That’s the formula.”

Rocco’s brain knows what he wants to say, but his body isn’t always able to oblige, according to Sara. To help Rocco communicate, he speaks using an electronic device, his “talker.”

During a Zoom interview with Rocco, Sara was at his side to help facilitate a
question-and-answer.

Asked what it was like to see himself in the film, Rocco tapped his talker, and a youthful voice said, “I feel happy.”

Ben Intonato commununes with his son, Rocco, after riding a wave...

Ben Intonato commununes with his son, Rocco, after riding a wave at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk, Credit: Randee Daddona

MORE ABOUT THE FILM

Watch a video about Rocco and the film at newsday.com/LILife. Visit roccoup.com to learn more about the documentary, including future screenings.