Although it is a coming-of-age story about surfing, “Chasing Mavericks” is no “Rocket Power.” With a PG rating and a name like “Chasing Mavericks,” we expect a feel-good film with a clichéd plot, a happy ending, and a heavy dollop of cheese to finish it off. The real question, then, is not whether or not the film avoids the saccharine tone that so often plague against-the-odds stories based on true events. The real question is if it adds anything unexpected to a recycled plot. In the case of “Chasing Mavericks,” however, the film’s focus on the power of nature as well as a shocking plot twist rob the viewer of what promised to be a stereotypically fuzzy film and proves surprisingly satisfying.
The plot itself would be at home in any Disney film, if only the director had added in a song-and-dance number. The movie follows the true story of surfer legend Jay Moriarty who died at the age of 22. Moriarty (Johnny Weston) finds a father figure in the bristly Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), a renowned surfer who sneaks off from his adorable family to catch allegedly mythical waves called Mavericks. Awestruck by the waves, Jay convinces Frosty to teach him how to surf them, leading us on an adventure through high school crushes, best friends on drugs, and one boy’s struggle to “earn his salt.”
The stage is set for two hours of pure, unadulterated sap, and at first, the dialogue certainly delivers the expectedly manufactured emotions characteristic of the Bildungsroman. At one point Frosty’s wife reprimands him, saying, predictably, that Jay will surf the mavericks “even if he dies trying.” Butler does what he can with the script, playing the brooding Californian with a troubled past well, but even he can’t turn the amusingly mediocre writing into filmmaking genius. It also takes more than just slight suspension of disbelief for the audience to accept his attempt at a Californian accent as genuine—the occasional Scottish syllable slips out in his moments of frustration with his young protégé.
Frosty spouts wisdom with the air of a stereotypical surfing guru, stressing the need to bolster the “four pillars” of human strength. “Drive and glide,” becomes the mantra of the film, repeated on end into inanity as the two paddleboard across Half Moon Bay, California, for the half of the movie that doesn’t focus on Jay’s attempts to woo the girl of his dreams.
While the film’s beginning is satisfactorily snort-inducing, the dynamic changes completely at the halfway point as the camera catches wave upon crashing wave paired with a Mazzy Star and Butthole Surfers soundtrack instead of heart-soaring “Sea Willy” tunes and creates scenes that are soaring without being contrived. Underwater camera angles show waves unfurling from the seafloor up, and the film achieves moments of genuine awe. Unfortunately, these beautiful scenes are interspersed with shots of Weston awkwardly fist-pumping, so the cliché is salvaged, if not completely repaired.
However, just as soon as the viewer has recovered from the annoyingly well filmed waves and settled comfortably back into anticipations of further mediocre script writing, an unexpectedly poignant shift occurs between Frosty and Jay following a sudden and truly unanticipated crisis. Finally, Weston breaks from the stereotypical surfer performance, and act he does for the remainder of the film, changing his demeanor from absurdly entertaining into something frustratingly alluring. In this second half of the film, Butler and Weston play well off of each other, supplemented by Jay’s character development. Irony loses out to sympathy, and the film loses its potential status cheesy flick or an epic rewrite of the genre. And, in the end, Directors Apted and Hanson wrap the film up neatly, referencing Moriarty’s life after the Mavericks until his early death, putting a satisfyingly sad bow on this simultaenously awkward and genuinely uplifting film.