The image of Helen Hunt determinedly trying to climb onto a surfboard — looking clumsy, tired and frustrated, yet refusing to accept defeat — is irresistible enough to offset some of the more wobbly missteps in “Ride,” an alternately endearing and exasperating dramedy that represents the actress’s first directorial outing in the eight years since “Then She Found Me.” Warm and engaging when it focuses on Hunt as an uptight New Yorker learning to mellow out on the beaches of Los Angeles, the film turns gratingly forced whenever her naive, angsty son steps into the frame, occasioning so much shrill, self-involved mother-son bickering you long for a tidal wave to come along and sweep them both out to sea. Fortunately, calmer waters ultimately prevail, and with its calculated, crowd-pleasing elements, this labor-of-love effort should earn some fans as it makes its way through the distribution pipelines.
The first scene in “Ride” — in which we see Jackie (Hunt) quietly, secretly watching over her young son, Angelo — consciously echoes the opening shot of “Terms of Endearment,” that 1983 classic of smother-mother sentimentality from James L. Brooks. It’s hardly the only respect in which writer-helmer Hunt seems to be tapping into the influence of her “As Good as It Gets” director, even if the attempt to recapture Brooks’ sophisticated, verbally distinctive brand of screwball feels more strained than successful. When we next see Angelo, he’s a handsome, hotheaded teenager (played by Brenton Thwaites) whose every conversation with Jackie seems to devolve, needlessly, into a hyperarticulate, mile-a-minute screaming match. (It’s even worse when they text, given the odd decision to have the actors read their back-and-forth messages aloud.)
Jackie, a fiction editor at the New Yorker, is the sort of pushy, high-strung Manhattan yuppie who seems to go through life with a red marker in hand and very little nice to say about anyone. Angelo, an aspiring writer who’s about to start his freshman year at NYU, seems to have absorbed his mother’s cultured influence and her razor-sharp tongue; much as he loathes her for being overprotective and meddlesome, he’s even more infuriated by his desperate need for her approval. So it initially looks like a smart move when Angelo drops out of school and moves in with his much more easygoing dad (Robert Knepper) on the West Coast, where he decides to live like a sort of Kerouacian beach bum — surfing, hanging with friends, smoking the occasional joint and soaking up enough rays (and eventually, life experience) to stimulate his creative juices.
Jackie responds to this bombshell the way any sensible mother would: She hops the next plane to L.A., stalks her son from a distance, accidentally rear-ends him, and ultimately tries to talk some sense into him. But Angelo angrily rebuffs her, telling her she couldn’t possibly understand, much less experience, the joy of surfing — a ridiculously roundabout way of getting Hunt on that board, but it works, more or less. Her motherly concern soon giving way to wounded pride, Jackie is convinced that, given her excellent physical condition, surfing will be a snap. Only after getting knocked over a few dozen times does she realize that she will need a wetsuit, a lot more stamina and, most importantly, a few lessons.
Happily, a handsome, laid-back waterman named Ian (Luke Wilson) is on hand to teach her a few things — how to paddle, how to wipe out properly and, inevitably, how to get back in touch with her long-dormant libido. Also around to help is Jackie’s personal driver, Ramon (David Zayas), who patiently shuttles her from her luxury hotel to the beach every day, putting up with her boss-lady demeanor, unreasonable demands and incessant work-related phone calls. Wonderfully played by Wilson and Zayas, respectively, Ian and Ramon become the best pit crew a fish-out-of-water surfer mom could ask for — and if these developments are among the film’s most predictable, they’re also among the most satisfying, as Jackie gradually sheds some of her more abrasive layers and begins, against all odds, to enjoy herself.
Showing admirably little concern for the viewer’s sympathy, Hunt hurls herself headlong into the role of this stubborn, controlling, self-satisfied, intensely judgmental woman, making it all the more gratifying when her veneer of self-possession begins to crack and we begin to warm to her in spite of ourselves. And while it will escape no one’s notice that the 51-year-old actress looks terrific in a swimsuit (or surprise anyone who saw her bare all in 2012’s “The Sessions”), Hunt directs herself in the surfing scenes with a complete absence of vanity, not to mention the masochistic dedication of a Navy SEAL instructor: Again and again she falls (the actress did 75% of her own falling, according to the press notes), in what must surely be some of the more honest training montages in recent sports-movie memory. Fortunately, Jackie’s goals remain modest and realistic — she’s learning how to surf, not chasing after the Vans Triple Crown — which goes a long way toward keep “Ride” appealingly human-scaled.
Where the film falters is in the writing of its central relationship: That Jackie and Angelo love each other fiercely doesn’t make their interactions any less hard to take, and Australian newcomer Thwaites (“Maleficent,” “Son of a Gun”), despite his ample charisma and pitch-perfect American accent, can’t quite get past his character’s callow, whiny affect. In trying to get to the root of all the Sturm und Drang, the script makes a third-act swerve into maudlin “Ordinary People” territory that simply proves too much for this otherwise brisk and breezy comedy to withstand. Still, the final wrap-up proves gently moving as mother and son learn to stop fighting each other and go with the proverbial flow.
Hunt handles the demands of the low-budget production expertly, including the not-inconsiderable challenges of directing while also appearing in virtually every frame; she’s aided by strong technical contributions all around, including Jas Shelton’s fine widescreen lensing, William Yeh’s dexterous editing and Julian Wass’ lightly supportive score. The picture is dedicated to both Hunt’s father, Gordon, a veteran director, and to the late cinematographer Sonny Miller, who served as the film’s water d.p.