Those of us who love the surfing movie genre tend to have forgiving standards. We’re there primarily for the drama on the ocean, not whatever drama is happening on shore. Like Patrick Swayze, we were into Point Break for the “100 percent pure adrenaline rush;” Keanu Reeves’ undercover FBI investigation was just the motor that drove us to the beach. From Gidget onward the viewer has tended to pay for the vicarious thrill of being up close and personal with the waves (and often, body doubles for the stars) by enduring dialogue along the lines of “these waves are for the big boys.” That’s from Blue Crush and quite possibly half the surfing movies ever made, where someone is always telling the hero or heroine they’re in over their head.
The imminently forgivable surfing drama Chasing Mavericks, which is based on a true story, is about some very big waves, the biggest in California, and a boy named Jay Moriarity (Johnny Weston) who dreamed of riding them. The movie aims to be inspirational and for the most part it is, in much the same bittersweet way as the baseball movie The Rookie. It’s too poetically inclined to talk about adrenaline rushes (even while serving up a few) although it doesn’t entirely escape the cliches. “Untrained boys don’t just step into the ring with Mike Tyson,” Santa Cruz surfer Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) growls when the 15-year-old Jay begs Frosty to take him to Mavericks. The surfing spot is a legend, a place where a winter’s northwest swell can build 50-foot waves, but in 1994, at the time the story takes place, its location just north of Half Moon Bay was still a closely held secret among local surfers.
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Naturally the curmudgeon caves and agrees to train the boy, who is already a gifted surfer, a ballet dancer on a board. Weston, a Christopher Atkins look-alike who does most of his own surfing (as did Butler, who is trim and fit as a fiddle) seems like a natural, reaching out easily to affectionately touch the inside curve of a wave, as if it were a friendly elephant at the zoo. Co-directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted (who finished the film after Hanson had a health crisis) focus on the deepening relationship between Frosty and Jay as the training unfolds. Frosty sets physical goals for Jay—hold your breath for four minutes, eat well, be able to paddle a 36-mile distance from Santa Cruz to a point in Monterey—as well as spiritual and intellectual exercises, including writing essays on topics like “fear” and learning what Frosty calls “the four pillars of life.”
I believe that Frosty’s first pillar has to do with observation, the second with fear being healthy and panic deadly, but I confess that, in spite of a measured, convincing performance by Butler, I lost track of the other pillars and can only tell you they are noble, sensible and Oprah-esque. Jay doesn’t seem to need instruction on decency though. He’s depicted as having a deadbeat dad and being raised by a single mom (Elisabeth Shue) from the age of 8, but he doesn’t drink or do drugs or chase girls (he’s too busy gazing longingly at his childhood best friend Kim, played by the stunning Leven Rambin, aka, Glimmer from The Hunger Games). He’s helpful to his slatternly mother, dumping her booze down the drain and waking her for work in the morning (“You’re going to lose your job again”). When other kids sneer and call him “little trash” or refer to Frosty disparagingly as his “rent-a-Daddy,” Jay just smiles calmly and turns his hopeful blue eyes to the always-welcoming sea.
(READ: About the quest to ride a 100-foot wave)
By all accounts, the real Jay Moriarity, who got famous in the surfing world after surviving an epic wipeout at Mavericks, was just as zen, although Chasing Mavericks puts some Hollywood gloss on his and Frosty’s story. The movie Frosty has Jay on a 12-week training program for Mavericks; in reality Hesson trained Moriarity for two years. Moriarity’s iconic tumble, the one that landed him at 16, tiny atop a monster wave and poised to fall, on the cover of Surfer magazine, took place eight months after he’d started surfing Mavericks; in the movie it happens on his very first big wave.
In interviews the real Frosty, who wrote a book about Mavericks, seems a jovial sort—he happily trained many young surfers, not just Jay. My hunch is that Frosty’s movie moodiness may be amped up to maximize the tension as to whether he’ll keep training Jay or not. At times the character is a little baffling, particularly his avoidance of his own children, which his saintly wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer, daughter of famed surfer Yancy Spencer) is always gently chiding him about. But much of the drama that swirls around these characters, including one untimely and unexpected death, is true to life. (I thought oh come on, they must have made that up.) When one of Frosty’s surfing buddies, all played by real Mavericks stalwarts, surveys the pummeling surf and warns gloomily that “Someone’s going to die out there,” it may seem overly dramatic, but champion surfer Mark Foo did die at Mavericks just a few days after Moriarity’s crazy ride.
(SEE: Footage of the big waves at Mavericks)
Chasing Mavericks may treat its characters with a little too much reverence, but it gives its titular subject its awe-inspiring due. When we finally see Mavericks in full churn, the waves tower and crash impressively. Our proximity to them is breathtaking; look for a shot where a sizable boat nearly gets swamped by a wave. But the edits and cuts required to keep the focus on a character mean you’re never quite getting the visual whole you long for. Watching Jay catch waves, there’s a terrifying angle, the sea seems a whirlpool, then suddenly there he is, paddling through something that seems almost placid. Then there’s the jarring, meanwhile-back-on-shore static shot of Butler holding binoculars and looking anxious. Every surfing feature film is a bit of a tease; those in search of verisimilitude would do better to rent a documentary like Riding Giants. (Or go surfing themselves.) But Chasing Mavericks is still a sweet ride worth catching.