I don’t know if you have to be a surfer to fully appreciate Chasing Mavericks, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. When every frayed plot device you’ve predicted makes its inevitable appearance, at least you’ll have the majestic waves off the California coastline to comfort you.
Ostensibly, the double-helmed feature – director Curtis Hanson became ill near the end of the shoot and was replaced by Michael Apted – is based on the life of the late surfing legend Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), who drowned in a diving accident at the age of 22.
Ever-smiling, nicer-than-nice Jay carries a lot on his adolescent plate: an absent father, an irresponsible, semi-alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue), a part-time job in a pizza parlour, a gang of menacing, drug-dealing toughs (who never deliver on their threats), an unrequited love for Kim (Leven Rambin) and his burning quest: to conquer the mavericks, the surfing term used to describe the outsized, rogue breaks common to the Half Moon Bay region near Santa Cruz.
To that end, Jay enlists the reluctant help of his neighbour, the aptly named Frosty (Gerard Butler). A married roofer with two children, Frosty is an unreconstructed surfer at heart, and soon becomes Jay’s surrogate father, escorting him on early-morning paddles and prepping him mentally and physically for the mavericks challenge.
Of course, there is a narrow window of time during which to make the teenager maverick-worthy – the super-waves roll in only a few months of the year. And life, as it does, keeps getting in the way of the best-laid training regimens.
If you think you have seen this story arc before, you probably have. It’s The Karate Kid, with Butler as the rubber-suited sensei who must force his young charge to dig ever deeper. The enemy is not the killer wave. You have to control your own fear.
Weston’s Jay is so relentlessly wholesome that you could put his face on orange juice. (A veteran surfer, he apparently did most of his own stunts.) Irishman Butler, still struggling to find a plausible American accent, dutifully follows the plot’s trajectory, from reflexive gruff to loving in loco parentis. Every one else does exactly what cardboard props are designed to do.
Surfer documentaries do a better job of capturing the incredible athleticism of the sport, but, as features go, Mavericks is a cut above, if only for its fidelity to the ethos. The script, alas, is what it is, so just ignore it and focus on the cinematography of Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope – the mighty Pacific throwing its weight around and toying with our petty ambitions.