Chasing Mavericks follows the true-enough and tragic story of Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), the hugely talented surfer who died in 2001 from a free-diving accident in the Maldives, one day before his 23rd birthday. We’re moved to enjoy the inspirational bent of Moriarity’s teenage years as he learns from legendary California surfer Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), romances soon-to-be wife Kim (Leven Rambin), and deals with the quotidian annoyances of adolescence, not least of which is his unreliable, alcoholic mother, Kristy (Elisabeth Shue). Scenes of Moriarity’s physical training are favored over chatter about the spiritual benefits of the sport, which partly explains why directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted fail to tap into surfing’s joy and wildness, its ability to transform a man on various levels.
The story focuses on Moriarity and Frosty’s bonding in Santa Cruz and the young man’s hopes of being able to surf the fabled Mavericks at Half Moon Bay during El Niño, touching on themes of fatherhood and will power, specifically Frosty’s slow acceptance of his place as both a real father to his children and as a father figure to Moriarity, who, sadly and ironically, gets lost in the shuffle as a character. The neophyte is unimaginatively portrayed as a figure of cherubic purity and goodness, an athlete who already looks like he’s ready for the Olympics when we first set eyes on him and whose sense of decency is blatantly counterpointed with the careless meanness of the damaged characters who surround him. The one friend he has outside of Kim and Frosty, Blond (Devin Crittenden), is a drug dealer, openly working for a local malevolent hood who consistently pesters Moriarity, and Blond’s salvation, of course, only comes when Moriarity forgives him toward the end of the film.
The filmmakers’ kinship to Moriarity is obvious, and it makes for a tone of unflinching hope and optimism, though it leaves little room for grit or nuance. The drugs Blond deals are never clearly identified, and there’s no sense of Kristy’s struggle through recovery, or of Frosty’s coping with the sudden death of his wife, Brenda (Abigail Spencer). Such blandness and evasiveness is surprising given that Chasing Mavericks is the product of two formidable, often gutsy filmmakers. The end result showcases none of their strengths, though the thematic material is more in Hanson’s wheelhouse. Both seem happy enough to prop Moriarity up as a Christ-like figure and present surfing as a sport easily summed up by the sheer majesty of the ocean. It’s at once not enough and overkill for a man defined by his humbleness and easy humanity.