Sports movies almost always work better when there’s a clear enemy. Miracle has the Soviets. Happy Gilmore has Shooter McGavin. Caddyshack has Judge Smails, and Chasing Mavericks should have a huge, deadly wave. Unfortunately, it has huge deadly waves and a drunk mom and a girl who isn’t really giving the main character the time of day and a drug dealer who wants to start shit and a friend who is kind of drifting away. There’s just way too much going on. It’s not Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston) vs. nature. It’s Jay Moriarty vs. all of the problems in his life, of which, waves are far from the most important. Consequently, a film that should be about building to one giant thrill is about continually going down bunny hills.
That desire to try and encapsulate everything is a common pitfall for a film based on a real set of events. It’s difficult to streamline everything enough to properly build momentum and a sensible focus, and ordinarily, that lack of direction is enough to sink a film. Like its main character, however, Chasing Mavericks has a determined heart and a lovability about it. With charisma, energy and plenty of truly impressive surfing shots, it’s able to work through each of those plot mistakes and ultimately become an enjoyable few hours spent in the sun.
Born to a mother (Elizabeth Shue) who is an unreliable drunk and a father who didn’t bother sticking around, our hero has to worry about problems like where the rent is going to come from and whether he’ll need to give up his room to a boarder to help keep the lights on. To escape, he takes his friend Kim (Leven Rambin) out to the ocean and counts the seconds between the waves. The water is his peace, and as he ages and begins dealing with Kim drifting away and a douche bag drug dealer who thinks he’s too happy all the time, he plunges further into the world of surfing. At first, small waves are enough of a challenge, but eventually, danger is a prerequisite.
That’s where Frosty (Gerard Butler) comes in. A roofer who wakes up early and rides maverick waves, the married father takes Jay under his wing and teaches him about life and the water. He’s already stood at the top of deadly waves and plunged beneath the surface with little hope of survival. He’s conquered the fears within his own soul, and in Jay, he finds the son and the friend he’s always wanted. Together, they train to surf the deadly waves flowing into California thanks to El Nino and together, they work through every unexpected lefthand turn they encounter on their way to the beach.
Much of Chasing Mavericks’ runtime takes place in the water. Whether sitting atop boards and talking or actually surfing, it was imperative the ocean shots were done properly, and what is achieved is nothing short of spectacular. Butler and Weston do the majority of their own stunts, and when professionals take their place, the proper angles are chosen so the audience never knows the difference. It’s very skillfully handled, and all involved make as believable surfers as they do human beings.
That’s the strange thing about Chasing Mavericks. The acting is top notch. Butler is solid as usual and for a kid who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page, Jonny Weston is better than anyone could have hoped for. The cinematography is great. The writing contains a few well-crafted scenes. In a vacuum, it’s all somewhere between good and very good, but together, it just doesn’t completely work. There’s too much. It needs to be scaled back twenty percent. Either the drug dealer needs to be cut, or his mom needs to be less of a mess, or his friend needs to not have a drug problem. It would need another thirty minutes to justify all these sideplots, and since it doesn’t have it, every moment spent on the periphery of Jay’s life feels like a moment where he should have been training to surf the big wave.
There are plenty of mistakes to be found here, but there are also moments to cheer. There are smiles to be had and a sense of wonder to be appreciated. Whether those positives can just as easily be experienced in the comfort of your own home in six months probably depends on how nice the picture is on your television.