Even though the film was directed by the combination of Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) and Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner’s Daughter), I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed Chasing Mavericks. The film is based on the real life of surfer Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston, who reminds me more than a little of Christopher Atkins in The Pirate Movie) who grew up chasing giant waves most believed were myths in a small cove in Northern California in the mid-1990’s.
Although the surfing footage is some of the best ever captured for a feature film, the screenplay is just as focused on Jay’s life outside the water when he’s not obsessed with his dream of surfing Mavericks. The fatherless young man whose alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue) is less than dependable latches on at a young age to a surfing neighbor (Gerard Butler) who, despite having enough trouble figuring out how to be a father to his own daughter (Maya Raines), finds himself cast into the role of a surrogate father to the talented young surfer whether he likes it or not.
While spying on Frosty (Butler) one day, Jay discovers a secret cove where the waves are bigger and far more violent than he’s ever seen before. Realizing that the young man will try to surf the coast with or without Frosty’s help, the surfer’s wife (Abigail Spencer) convinces her husband to agree to train the young man, vastly increasing his chances of survival. As with most Hollywood coming of ages stories, our mentor teaches his student far more about life than he was expecting, and learns a few lessons of his own from the student as well.
The film gets into trouble at times with some of the one-note supporting characters, most notably the local bully (Taylor Handley) who has terrorized Jay since the day he first jumped on a surfboard. The complex relationship with Jay’s best friend (Devin Crittenden) works better, although it is abandoned for much of the second-half of the movie. We also get Leven Rambin (whose resemblance to a young Robin Wright is spooky at times) as the girl Jay has had a crush on his whole life.
In movies that feature training montages and lessons about life through sports and athleticism you can expect to get your share of cliched dialogue, but thankfully the script by Kario Salem manages to fit these scenes in without having the plot feel too canned or forced. In fact the only real problem with the tone of the script is when it tries to be a little too poetic which comes off as clunky at times. Although Jay could use a little dusting up (he’s pretty damn saintly for a teenager), his actions, emotions, and choices all feel natural for the character.
Weston is a surprise, and, despite looking a little too developed for the role of a 15 year-old, is able to carry the film surprisingly well despite the range of emotion the story requires from the young actor. Butler is an interesting choice as the middle-aged man who still can’t quite let go of his youth and Spencer is terrific as Frosty’s wife who steals many of the movie’s best lines.
Chasing Mavericks isn’t the kind of film likely to win awards or garner much attention (other than possibly for its cinematography and sound editing), but it’s far more polished than some of the films Walden Media has put out in recent years. The film deals with several threads including surfing, love, struggle, personal responsibility, and spirituality without ever coming across as preachy or hamfisted.
I’d be interested to learn how much of the film Apted directed (he took over when Hanson’s health made him unable to complete the project). Knowing Apted’s documentary background I wonder how much of the final surfing segment (which needs to be seen to be believed) he helmed. The film is worth seeing just for the incredible footage of the surfers taking on gigantic waves that nearly topple ships just off the coast, but Chasing Mavericks also delivers an entertaining story and several good performances from a well-rounded cast. Thankfully, there’s more to the movie than just what happens in the water.