Directed by Curtis Hanson, Michael Apted. Starring Gerard Butler, Abigail Spencer, Elisabeth Shue, Leven Rambin, Taylor Handley, Scott Eastwood, Channon Roe, Jonny Weston. Written by Kario Salem, story by Jim Meenaghan & Brandon Hooper.
Surfer Jay Moriarty gained fame at the age of 16 when a photographer caught him wiping out atop a giant crest at Mavericks, the famed Northern California surfing mecca that can see waves over 20m tall during peak season. The iconic image made the cover of Surfer magazine in 1994, and Moriarty went on to author the book The Ultimate Guide to Surfing.
Chasing Mavericks, which traces Moriarty’s growth from an eight-year-old who times the waves in Santa Cruz up to his legendary wipeout at Mavericks, is a gorgeously shot but dramatically inert feature that has the unfortunate tendency to veer towards biopic-standard; much of the film feels bland and over-written, failing to deliver the real-life specifics that might have made this more memorable. A documentary-style approach might have helped; when the film finished, I was more interested in Moriarty’s true story than the movie’s obviously-scripted narrative.
But the film is saved when it sticks to the water, delivering some of the best surfing footage surfing footage ever caught for a fictional feature (though it still can’t touch the classic doc The Endless Summer). There’s a magic in the waves that is fully apparent in the images on the screen, even if the script fails to fully convey or even comprehend it.
Chasing Mavericks stars newcomer Jonny Weston as Moriarty, who surfs circles around the other kids at the local beach while living (and looking after) his single mother (Elisabeth Shue) in Santa Cruz, California. In search of a greater challenge, his eyes are opened when he follows neighbor Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) to the mythical (and extremely dangerous) Mavericks location a few hours north.
Frosty reluctantly agrees to train Jay to be able to survive the conditions at Mavericks, knowing that Jay would attempt to ride the giant waves there with or without his help. And so we have a lot of paddling, breath-holding, essay-writing and fear-overcoming as Jay prepares to surf the biggest waves of his life.
Here’s the problem: the script wants to convey some kind of tangible drama here, framing the movie as an uplifting sports drama, a la The Karate Kid, with Butler’s Frosty as a Mr. Miyagi-like figure. Usually these films have some kind of villain that the hero must train to defeat, and end with a big confrontation.
But surfing is a different beast, a solitary, spiritual journey whose appeal cannot be so easily defined; I expect many people will watch this movie and wonder what Jay is going to accomplish by surfing Mavericks, what is the value of all of this training. Conquering your fear and finding inner peace are not themes that can be so easily grasped in a film like this, and the film continually struggles to justify its conventional plotting (as opposed to, say, something like Big Wednesday). It leaves much of the film feeling flat.
The climactic Mavericks surfing sequence, however, is immensely satisfying, and while the script might not capture the magic of surfing, the images most certainly do: cinematography by Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope is simultaneously breathtaking and terrifying, capturing a beautiful serenity that can take lives in a heartbeat. And it has: four days after Moriarty’s iconic wipeout, celebrated surfer Mark Foo died while surfing Mavericks; co-star Butler had his own close call while filming on location.
Chasing Mavericks was helmed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), who had to leave the project with three weeks of principal filming remaining due to health issues. Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist) took over directorial duties and completed the film; the result is more than proficient on a technical level, as you’d expect from these filmmakers, but seems to lack the singular vision that might have elevated the story into something out of the ordinary.
Still, Mavericks is worth it for the cinematography alone. And while the narrative may not be original, it’s the kind of warm, fuzzy, good-natured material that we can put up with to get to the good stuff.