Chasing Mavericks is a coming-of-age/inspirational sports drama based on the true story of surfer Jay Moriarity, who is brought to life as a bright-eyed 15-year old by Jonny Weston. Gerard Butler costars as Frosty Hesson, a crusty and curly-haired surfer who has conquered the Mavericks (a California surfing location north of Santa Cruz in Half Moon Bay, which boasts waves upwards of 60-70 feet) and agrees to mentor young Jay about the ‘Tao of Surfing,’ in order to prepare him to take on the mighty Mavericks.
Oscar-winner Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) directed Chasing Mavericks – with assistance from Michael Apted (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), who took over after Hanson fell ill part-way through production on the non-surfing portions of the film. Second unit director Philip Boston (who helmed the surfing documentary Billabong Odyssey) oversaw the six-months of shooting that proved necessary to properly capture Mavericks’ waves in motion.
Chasing Mavericks comes fully alive when the setting shifts to the ocean, beginning with the ‘spiritual awakening’ of 8-year-old Jay (Cooper Timberline) when, by sheer providence, he is saved from a watery grave by Hesson (who calls it dumb luck); subsequent scenes with mature Jay soaring high on the tide likewise pack a strong visceral punch. Similarly, the teacher-student dynamic at the film’s core feels most authentic when set against the backdrop of the immense liquid abyss, allowing the more cliché moments (see: when Frosty discusses his ‘quirky’ techniques with Jay, such as his ‘Four Pillars of the Human Foundation’ thesis) to sound like more than a screenwriter’s invention.
Thanks to the combined efforts of the aforementioned filmmakers – as well as the directors of photography Bill Pope (The Matrix trilogy) and Oliver Euclid – these off-shore sequences offer instances of pure visual poetry, heart-pounding exhilaration, and even some genuine tension during the inevitable climax, pitting Jay against the Mavericks at its mightiest (thanks to El Niño). Furthermore, it allows for all those surfing novices in the audience (like myself) to better comprehend how the aquatic sport can offer someone a experience both nerve-shattering and serene.
However, it’s in the non-surfing portions that Chasing Mavericks begins to crumble. The narrative does not proceed naturally between plot points; instead, they align in a manner that either comes off as contrived (for instance, Jay’s father abandoned him as a child, while Frosty is insecure about his ability to be a good parent) or end up feeling a bit pointless. The best example of the latter is a story thread wherein Jay’s longtime friend Blond (Devin Crittenden) buys drugs and befriends the film’s bland ‘antagonist’ – a bully named Sonny (Taylor Handley) – which culminates with a turn-of-events that has a muddled-to-trivial effect on the plot. However, there is also an egregious second-act twist (which I won’t spoil) that comes off as unearned at best, overly-manipulative at worst.
Unfortunately, the script for Chasing Mavericks (written by Kario Salem, with story credit going to Brandon Hooper and Jim Meenaghan) also lets its supporting cast down. Crittenden and Handely, as mentioned before, are stuck with stock material; the same goes for Leven Rambin (All My Children) as the thinly-drawn love interest Kim, whose character arc travels a predictable route. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Shue plays an under-developed variation on the ‘messed-up single-mom’ archetype (she tackled a similar part in last month’s House at the End of the Street), while Abigail Spencer (Mad Men) as Frosty’s wife Brenda has little to do but offer words of wisdom and explain other characters’ backstories (literally).
Weston and Butler, as it were, both deliver fine performances, given what the two have to work with. Jay is sketched as an almost-angelic surfer-phile at times, but Weston makes him believable enough; it’s an idyllic portrayal of a real person, but it fits with the film’s PG-friendly tone. Similarly, Butler does a pretty decent job delivering a more vulnerable variation on his typical screen masculinity, as Frosty is more introverted and laid-back than the alpha male characters the actor has made his calling card in recent years (Butler harkens back to his pre-300 turn in Dear Frankie, in that regard).
The direction from Hanson and Apted further helps to elevate the shortcomings of the story, allowing the film to occasionally succeed as gentle, inoffensive, and even sweet entertainment (outside of when it takes place in the ocean, that is). Still, even that only takes Chasing Mavericks so far, as the non-surfing elements of the narrative just seem too formulaic and lacking in depth for anyone to pull off with complete success. Moreover, there’s a listlessness to the coming-of-age aspect of the narrative that becomes all the more noticeable because the surfing elements are so well-executed.
As a whole, Chasing Mavericks offers some spectacular cinematic imitation of the surfing experience, but fills that mold with paint-by-numbers plot beats and characters; thankfully solid direction and chemistry between the leads makes all that easier to swallow. Finally, the real-life ending to Jay Moriarity’s story (which is covered in the epilogue) does add an unexpected touch of poignancy to the proceedings.
However, even with all that working in its favor, this film never excels beyond the same level reached by other inspirational genre fare intended to be all-inclusive for family audiences. Chasing Mavericks invites cynicism in that sense, but it’s made with enough sincerity to avoid being so immediately disposable as that description suggests.
Chasing Mavericks is now playing in theaters around the U.S. It is Rated PG for thematic elements and some perilous action.