Chasing Mavericks a Topsy Turvy but Touching Little Film
By Kristin Battestella
I confess, I’ve watched the 2012 Jay Moriarity surfing biopic Chasing Mavericks numerous times in numerous parts and only once or twice all the way through. You see, it isn’t that it’s a bad film – quite the contrary as far as young sports dramas go – but I just find the waves, music, and water imagery very relaxing and always fall asleep. I think it’s an Aquarius thing.
Young Jay (Jonny Weston) is saved from drowning along the Santa Cruz shore by his neighbor and local surfer Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler). Jay likes to time the waves and learns to surf with his friend Blond (Devin Crittenden), but after secretly following Frosty and watching him surf the massive Mavericks wave, Jay begs Frosty to train him. With the encouragement of his wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer), Frosty teaches Jay his surfing wisdoms. Jay works hard at school and work, helps his single mother Kristy (Elisabeth Shue), and pursues childhood friend Kim (Leven Rambin) while forming a fatherly bond with Frosty and making ready to tame the waves.
Though not a lot of people have probably heard of Chasing Mavericks, I imagine those who have ask one question: Curtis Hanson worked on this? L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson? Due to illness, Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter) came on to co-direct with Hanson, and the somewhat uneven drama is reflected in the dual direction. Touching familial relationships seem cut short while some of the teeny bopper scenes go on for too long. Is this a teen sports movie with something more or a family drama that happens to have surfing? Chasing Mavericks never seems to make up its mind. Though some characters are underdeveloped or inserted as needed, obvious allegorical possibilities – everyone has a lot going on under the surface but nobody lets their feelings out except when riding the waves – are no less meaningful. The script from Kario Salem (Don King: Only in America) has some very poignant moments as well with fear versus panic realizations and learning how you perform on the water as the measure for when things go wrong in life. The voiceovers do lay it on a little thick, but most sports movies are overly sentimental amid the badassery anyway. Could Chasing Mavericks have been better by focusing even more on dramatic relationships and family angst before teen clichés? Perhaps. The vision may be slightly muddled, but I like that this is a PG presentation that didn’t go for gung ho edgy sex or teen abuses. Death and vice issues are there for sure, but Chasing Mavericks does its best by sticking to its heart rather than giving into sensationalism as so many films often do.
Unevenness quibbles aside; Chasing Mavericks is a good-looking film. The above and below surfing and water photography is wonderfully, well, fluid and colorful while lovely aerial shots and landscape cinematography capture the insurmountable scope of the ocean and nature’s peril. Old technology like radios and typewriters, pen and paper, letters, maps, drawings, and artwork along with the slightly poorer looking homes, locales, old cars and crappy vans, bikes, and skateboards contrast the beautiful beaches, waves, and rocks. Heck, look at those old $20 dollar bills! Granted, these are more obviously parallel visualizations, but the style looks appropriately period instead of just today’s easy retroactive nineties cool impression. The traditionally neon board colors and water gear, however, are a lot more fun to see than this modern teal and orange saturated and digitally tinted palette. The orange coloring is dang ridiculous at times, making both the fake tans and sunburn more apparent, and patchy, poorly lit interiors are too dark compared to the bright and beautiful outdoors. Instrumental training montages, slow motion, and surfing awe orchestration may be too syrupy at times, but that fits the surfer Zen themes, soothing bubbles, and rippling water sounds. Those teen wow surfing or skateboarding pop music interludes, unfortunately, do come off as dated and cliché. We get the El Nino explanations nowadays, too, but seriously, where’s the dang boss at that shameful pizza parlor?!
On a totally superficial note, uber Gerard Butler fans will like his tight wet suit look. Strangely, however, I think he is wearing his own clothes in some scenes, for it seems like we’ve seen him in the same ugly sweaters and dirty shirts off camera. Thankfully, the lighter, shaggy hair and scruffy style fits the late eighties/early nineties surfer dude part. Butler (300) is still very handsome in certain scenes, and of course, he gets wet a lot, yet the older, shabby persona and accessories like reading glasses make for a refreshingly unglamorous and real portrayal. Unfortunately, the blondish hair color does not suit him, and Butler looks haggard, thin, and drawn or puffy, dilated, and out of it from scene to scene. His accent is not just off, but his voice seems weak, strained as if he can’t deliver his lines without slurring – well, slurring more than his usually charming brogue. Ironically, this washed out design works in specific scenes, and Frosty comes across as genuine, tough lived guy who knows the water thanks to some great quips and wry wisdoms such as “Thou shalt not ding Frosty’s board or damage thy neighbor’s car.” Frosty’s onscreen stance about people not being ready to surf big waves, however, is also ironic, considering Butler himself wasn’t a surfer before the movie and the toll from his on set hold down and other pains or health issues shows in Chasing Mavericks. Nonetheless, Gerry provides one or two excellent near tearful moments and all the heartfelt range needed. He’s producing here, and the film is clearly paternal and personal to him. I give him a tough time I know, but I applaud Butler for not going after some comedy or action hot hot hot in Chasing Mavericks and I wish he did more purely dramatic character roles with this kind of merit. Jonny Weston (John Dies at the End) has some of that weird, curly eighties hair, too, but he fits this touching real life role well. Jay’s young but mature and wise beyond his years thanks to a tough, relatable life, and Weston brings the open attitude and inspirational reaching out to others good vibes. He matches Butler’s fatherly pillars as Jay encourages Frosty in the two-way male bonding. Their story has the built in dramatic twists and turns required and their familial scenes in Chasing Mavericks are the best.
Abigail Spencer (Angela’s Eyes) has her own real life surfing family history but unfortunately, she isn’t given much to do except passive aggressively complain about Frosty’s surfing behind his wife’s back. We see him giving up surfing opportunities and doing his carpentry with Jay like he is supposed to do so her motivations can feel somewhat hollow or too back and forth. If she feels their marriage is on the rocks and that he doesn’t pay attention to their kids, why does she push him to accept his father figure role to Jay? Brenda realizes their family life isn’t perfect but immediately includes the less than fortunate Jay in their home and defends him as if he were her son when Frosty gets too strict. However, their own children’s ages are a bit telling – an older daughter as if she got pregnant and married young and a baby as if Brenda’s trying to save the marriage with another child. Her family’s dislike of Frosty is alluded to as well; she was a rich girl who gave up a lot for him, apparently. All these ups and downs are told rather than shown in developing Brenda as her own character. The film should have run with this tight knit dynamic, for more strengthening scenes with these domestic complexities would have given Chasing Mavericks the polished development it needs. As is, there is only one scene between Brenda and Jay’s girlfriend Kim, and none of the three main adults is ever in a scene all together despite the viewer being told that they have indeed spoken. Maya Raines (About Cherry) also seems oddly miscast or too old to be Frosty and Brenda’s daughter. If she is a baby in the 1987 opening, then she should be seven once we remain in 1994. Strangely, she looks about twelve for most of the film yet gets read to and talks like a much smaller child – almost as if she were indeed seven.
Understandably, film often requires the typical best friend and ne’er do well antagonist – served here by Devin Crittenden (Greek) and Taylor Handley (Phantom of the Megaplex) – but the teenage tug and pull feels a bit too assy and I dare say unnecessary. These relationships are realistic perhaps, but ultimately Chasing Mavericks isn’t about bad kids with skateboards. We’ve seen that before yet surfing biographies with this kind of crossover mainstream appeal are few and far between. The secondary characters somewhat rightfully don’t matter compared to the waves, but it’s tough to tell who is who in some surfing scenes and credit listings like “Magnificent Two” don’t help identify anyone. Oscar winner Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), sadly, is erroneously underused as Jay’s mom – I’m not even sure she’s called by name onscreen. Again, more scenes together between her, Weston, their difficulties and reconciliations might have helped Chasing Mavericks hit home. Liberties and dramatic license have already been taken in the telling, so why not play to all your ensemble’s strengths and give the picture the extra zing it needs? Leven Rambin (All My Children) does fine with what she’s given, but she and Weston don’t have much chemistry. Their would-be steadfast relationship is played too young romance – one can’t quite imagine this couple will marry in a few short years. Naturally, this tale has a bittersweet end, but Chasing Mavericks’ live fast, love hard message and tender determination amid today’s culture of me me me excess is delightful. Besides, it took a dozen viewings, but I think I finally saw Scott Eastwood!
It’s so ironic that Butler’s crappy romantic comedies made millions when superior work such as Chasing Mavericks, Coriolanus, and Machine Gun Preacher failed in theaters. Maybe Butler’s health, off screen celebrity, and biz troubles – the failed Motor City production and its subsequent lawsuits for example – hurt Chasing Mavericks at the box office, and his own surfing accident during filming most likely contributed to his stint in rehab as well. That kind of press doesn’t help a largely wholesome, no cursing sports picture like Chasing Mavericks pad its wallet. It just seems like there isn’t room at the cinema for small, poignant fair, much less a tenderly told niche teen sports movie with such a finite demographic, and Chasing Mavericks was pitifully mis-marketed between its family drama and teen sports excitement split personalities. Instead of going for a confusing identity, Chasing Mavericks should have remained steadfast to its core players and brought home its umph. Granted, I am not a teenager, surfer, father, son, or California girl so I am not anywhere near the target viewer here. Heck, people who fear water or get seasick easily should avoid Chasing Mavericks all together. However, the touching, inspirational message and aquatic Zen here can stir surfing lovers, fans of the cast, and teen sports audiences.