A film review by Craig J. Koban November 7, 2012


2012, PG-13, 100 mins.


Frosty: Gerard Butler / Jay: Jonny Weston / Kristy: Elisabeth Shue / Brenda: Abigail Spencer / Sonny: Taylor Handley

Directed by Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson / Written by Kario Salem, Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper.

CHASING MAVERICKS is a good natured, noble minded, and mostly entertaining biopic of Californian surfer Jay Moriarty, who at the tender age of 16 was made very famous by wiping out at Mavericks – a surfing location in Northern California known for its treacherously high and dangerous waves – which was caught on camera and made the cover of Surfer Magazine.  These Maverick waves, I have read, can crest at nearly 30 feet and achieve a height of nearly 100 feet, which begs two questions: (1) What kind of insane person would ever attempt to ride such a potentially fatal wave and (2) what kind of mother would allow such a young man to risk his life in pursuit of such a perilous dream? 

I’m not quite sure if CHASING MAVERICKS is meant to be an overt tribute to Moriarty’s courage, determination, and fortitude or an appreciation piece about surfing and the mentality required to participate in it or a criticism of the dangers of the such endeavors.  Perhaps it’s a bit of all of those elements.  I certainly came out of the film respecting the talent and raw physicality required to even attempt riding Mavericks (if you can’t, for example, hold your breath for 4-plus minutes, then how would you ever survive if one of the waves drove you deep down underwater?), but I found myself distancing from the material when it comes to the hazards of the sport.  Any reasonable and sound-minded person would never attempt what Moriarty did in the early 90’s as a teen.  In the end, I guess you just have to respect his raw gumption. 

As for the film’s story of Moriarty’s life?  It’s affable and engaging enough, but riddled with TV-movie-of-the-week contrivances and regurgitated parts of countless other coming of age films.  In a brief prologue that shows Moriarty's childhood and early brush with surfing addiction, we see how his early attempts at the sport – leaving him bloodied after using an old Krazy Glued and duck taped together surf board – leads to his future prominence as an adolescent surfing daredevil of skill and finesse.  The teenage Jay (played with an affectionate blank faced earnestness and pluck by newcomer Jonny Weston) has a home life from hell: his mother (Elizabeth Shue) is a perpetually unemployed alcoholic and his father is not an active presence in his world anymore.   



Maybe this is what acted as a catalyst for Jay's engagement in surfing and, in particular, his interest in his neighbor, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler, nicely understated) who is the Yoda of surfers in his mindset.  Jay’s interest in Frosty is peaked when he sees him ride those monstrous Maverick waves.  He begs and pleads for Frosty to train him to ride Mavericks, which Frosty begrudgingly agrees to, but only if the teen adheres to every single one of his orders, which includes tiring drills of holding his breath for minutes, paddle boarding 36 miles across Half Moon Bay, underwater reef exploration, and – gasp! – three page essays on “the power of observation.”  The more the two spend time together the more a father/son bond is formed between them, and as the sensei teaches his grasshopper student the ways of big wave surfing, the student reciprocates by being a soothing voice of reason in Frosty’s life when tragedy strikes. 

The film is at its dramatic best when simply honing in on the subtle and sincere relationship between Jay and Frosty, and Butler and Weston have a nice, unforced chemistry and camaraderie on screen (despite the fact that the latter actor is somewhat stiff and mannered as a performer).  Even though the arc of the relationship seems ripe with obligatory elements of so many other mentor/student-centric films, it’s the genuineness of the performances that keep everything afloat (no pun intended).  Jay finds a surrogate father figure in Frosty that he can look up to and love and Frosty has an emotional anchor in Jay when his own personal life takes tumultuous detours; both characters come off as compassionate and authentically rendered. 

I only wished, though, that the screenplay didn’t get so bogged down is manufactured subplots, which the film seems to pile up on top of each other without looking back.  We have the father who abandoned his kid; the downtrodden, financially ruined, and booze-loving mother (well played by Shue, but in a horribly underwritten role); the girl that the hero has had a crush on since boyhood (the lovely and photogenic Leven Rambin) who does not reciprocate love back until the screenplay deems it fit; the standard-order bully (Taylor Handley) that makes the underdog’s life miserable and then comes to respect him; and a best friend which a good heart that manages to sink into drug trafficking for extra cash.   Nothing here in the script feels remotely pioneering or invigorating. 

CHASING MAVERICKS does score huge points where it counts in the arena of its cinematography (by Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope) that captures the intimidating beauty and awe-inspiring magnitude of the Maverick waves.  It’s abundantly clear that both Butler and Weston do a majority of their own surfing, and the extent to which CGI alterations or stunt doubles were used seems almost invisible at times.  The real bravura and entrancing footage comes in the latter half of the film where the El-Nino empowered Maverick waves themselves – and Jay’s daredevil mission to conquer them – is captured, during which we see beforehand killer waves the size of apartment buildings topple over surfers – and nearly capsize some boats – before Jay's goes on his legendary and borderline suicidal run.  CHASING MAVERICKS, if anything, deserves to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.

I was frankly surprised to see that this was jointly directed by Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted (whom replaced Hanson when he left the production due to illness), and the resulting melodramatic film hardly seems worthy of their high pedigree of combined talent (considering their collective resume, CHASING MAVERICKS is a decidedly forgettable blip).  Yet, despite the film’s predictable story mechanizations and false beats of artificial conflict, CHASING MAVERICKS contains decent and lived-in performances and some truly astounding surfing footage that pays rightful kudos to the natural highs and unmitigated risks of the sport.  The film’s end title credits are a real bummer for those not familiar with Moriarty’s life; he drowned in an apparent fee-diving accident, survived by his wife, his old childhood crush.  How touching, doubly ironic, and hauntingly fitting: Moriarty was baptized on the water as a future surfing legend and later died a man without apparent fear in the water. 

  H O M E