The outstanding big-wave footage proves more credible than the overfamiliar dramatics in “Chasing Mavericks,” an earnest account of how Jay Moriarity became a Northern California teen surfing legend before his diving-accident death at age 22. Clunky and touching by turns, this conventional effort from directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted centers around the relationship between the intrepid youth and his tough-love mentor, both of whom embrace the ocean as a means of escaping, and eventually conquering, their deep personal heartaches. Overlong result won’t benefit from Fox’s low-profile marketing push, which should generate mid-range B.O. ripples.
Moriarity achieved fame at 16 for tackling big waves at the legendary break known as Mavericks, even surviving a massive 1994 wipeout that landed him on the cover of Surfer magazine. A 1987-set prologue shows 8-year-old Jay (Cooper Timberline) transfixed by the tides breaking off the coast of his native Santa Cruz; seven years later, he’s a young pro (now played by Jonny Weston), navigating the waves with a grace and ease his peers envy. He’s also a bit of a goody two-fins, smiling relentlessly, taking care of his stressed single mom (Elisabeth Shue) and drawing the ire of a local beach bully (Taylor Handley).
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But Jay’s intrepid streak comes to the fore when he spies older neighbor Rick “Frosty” Hesson (Gerard Butler), a more seasoned but similarly obsessive surfer, riding huge waves at Mavericks. When Jay asks Frosty to initiate him into this dangerous sport, the older man gruffly refuses at first but eventually agrees, realizing the youth needs a paternal figure as well as a teacher. Thus begins an intense 12-week training regimen during which Jay learns to paddle with all his strength and hold his breath underwater for up to four minutes.
In line with his sometimes odd, “Karate Kid”-style methods, Frosty gives Jay essay assignments (occasioning much use of a mid-’90s scene-setting typewriter), designed to sharpen his mind and help him confront his innermost fears. Based on a story by producers and surfing aficionados Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper, Kario Salem’s screenplay tends to spell out Jay and Frosty’s personal baggage with on-the-nose situations and dialogue, much of it delivered by Frosty’s wife (a fine Abigail Spencer), who supports her hubby even when he would rather surf than make himself physically and emotionally available to his family.
En route to its big climax, timed to coincide with enormous El Nino-influenced Mavericks waves, the story generates occasional swells of feeling as Jay enjoys an ongoing flirtation with popular girl Kim (Leven Rambin) and Frosty has to deal with an unexpected family crisis.
But the core of this often meandering, leisurely paced picture is the surrogate father-son bond anchored by Butler, a dab hand at sensitive but emotionally clenched characters, and somewhat less confidently by Weston, an agreeable screen presence in a lead role conceived along blandly reverential lines. Both thesps were surfing novices at the start of shooting but look quite convincing on their longboards, thanks to hours of arduous training (Butler himself barely survived a frightening mid-production accident that saw him dragged underwater by successive waves).
With contributions by numerous Mavericks surfers including Brock Little (stunt coordinator), Grant Washburn (surf consultant), and Greg Long, Peter Mel and Zach Wormhoudt (cast as Frosty’s fellow riders), verisimilitude appears to have been a top priority for all involved. In that respect, the material and, indeed, the overall legacy of onscreen surfing benefit from having Hanson aboard. Reliably bringing intelligence and keen observation to each environment he tackles, the helmer thoroughly depicts the combination of mental aptitude and physical endurance needed to survive this daredevil undertaking (Apted took the reins last year when Hanson left for health reasons).
The eye-popping water footage looks digitally undoctored and entirely persuasive, generally maintaining a certain long-shot distance that allows audiences to see the surfers’ bodies in motion, thrillingly dwarfed by 40- and 50-foot waves. The film’s sense of fidelity extends to its portrait of Moriarity’s beach community, with lensing done in Santa Cruz and at Mavericks itself. Topnotch tech package is distinguished by Bill Pope’s clean lensing, Ida Random’s production design and Sophie de Rakoff’s costumes, while Chad Fischer’s score and Andrea von Foerster’s ’90s-centric soundtrack dramatically enhance the action.