Friday, October 26, 2012

Chasing Mavericks: Catch a wave!

Chasing Mavericks (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Chasing Mavericks, a sweet, earnest little film about following your passion, appears to have been dumped into theaters, with little fanfare, by 20th Century Fox.

That’s a shame, because it deserves better.

Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston, right) wants only to surf, and he particularly wants to surf
the giant waves that crash to shore in California's Half Moon Bay. To his frustration,
mentor Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) insists that the teen first learn everything about
the surrounding ocean currents, along with building up his endurance and breath
control. Needless to say, 15-year-olds aren't big on patience!
Surfing movies are pretty rare to begin with; good ones are practically nonexistent. 1978’s Big Wednesday is one of the few to take the sport seriously; other dramas slide into the melodramatic silliness of 1991’s Point Break or 2002’s Blue Crush. For the most part, this sub-genre remains defined by documentaries such as Bruce Brown’s iconic The Endless Summer — despite dating back to 1966, still one of the best — and more recent efforts such as 2003’s Step into Liquid and 2004’s Riding Giants.

Even as a drama, Chasing Mavericks belongs in their company: both for its sensational cinematography and exquisite ocean footage, and for the respectful manner in which it depicts the life of legendary surfer Jay Moriarity, made famous by his iconic photo on the cover of the May 1995 issue of Surfer magazine.

Northern Californians will particularly love this film, since it takes place in Santa Cruz and nearby Half Moon Bay. Kario Salem’s screenplay — adapted from a story by Jim Meenaghan and Brandon Hooper — takes the usual Hollywood liberties with some elements of Moriarity’s life, but the essential elements feel authentic: most particularly the student/mentor relationship between Moriarity and veteran coach/surfer Frosty Hesson.

A lengthy prologue establishes Jay as a plucky kid (Cooper Timberline) who learns to gauge wave size by timing the seconds between swells, a skill that can’t help impressing Hesson (Gerard Butler), who happens to live in the beachside house just next door. Jay’s home life is scattered, to say the least: His father abandoned the family; his mother, Kristy (Elisabeth Shue), has just as much trouble holding onto a job, as holding herself together.

Jay naturally gravitates toward Frosty as a father figure, a dynamic noted with gentle amusement — and definite approval — by Brenda Hesson (Abigail Spencer), absolutely the world’s most patient, tolerant and understanding wife. Chasing Mavericks is an unabashed valentine to several things — Moriarity, Hesson, surfing in general —  but perhaps most to Brenda. Spencer plays her with almost angelic wisdom and devotion, yet somehow manages to make this woman feel authentic: no small feat.

Thanks to Jay’s boyish prodding, Frosty introduces the kid to surfing; events then flash forward to the early 1990s, when Jay, now 15 (and played by Jonny Weston), has become a well-known surfer ... at least among the relatively tame and predictable waves along the Santa Cruz coast. Jay’s skill impresses some, such as the slightly older girl on whom he’s had a longstanding crush — Leven Rambin, as Kim — and annoys others, most notably the local bad boy (Taylor Handley, as Sonny).

Wanting to learn more — and sensing that Frosty has been guarding some sort of secret — Jay clandestinely hops atop his friend’s truck during an early morning drive up the California coast, to Half Moon Bay. To Jay’s amazement, Frosty then joins three friends for a session of surfing monster waves — dubbed mavericks — that have been dismissed as nothing but legends down in Santa Cruz.

And yet here they are: massive, challenging ... and beckoning.

Which scares the hell out of Frosty, who legitimately worries that this untrained kid would kill himself, were he to attempt such waves.

Longtime film fans will know what comes next, as the story shifts into a familiar, Karate Kid-esque path, with Frosty schooling Jay not merely in the necessary physical training — strength, endurance, breath control — but also in observational skills and ocean cartography.

Not to mention the spiritual, Zen-like nature of surfing itself. We almost expect Frosty to address his protégé as “Grasshopper.”

Okay, sure; it’s a bit clichéd. But here’s the thing: Butler and Weston play their relationship utterly straight, with not even a whiff of caricature. The real-life Moriarity was known to be unusually humble and easygoing, with a ready smile that couldn’t help charming everybody in his orbit; Weston unerringly captures that sincere, likable vibe.

He’s reflexively polite, initially addressing Frosty as “sir,” until finally achieving first-name status. In less capable hands, this would look and sound laughably retro, even corny; indeed, the story’s young thug, Sonny, frequently makes fun of Jay’s gentle nature. But Weston plays this role so well — and is equally well directed by Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted (the latter stepping in toward the end of production, when Hanson was sidelined by ill health) — that we can’t help accepting Jay at face value.

Hanson and Apted also helm several poignant exchanges between other characters, whether Frosty and Brenda, or Jay and his mother. I wish we could see a bit more of Elisabeth Shue; her portrayal of Kristy is somewhat shorthanded, with essential traits suggested by brief, telling glimpses. And yet we get enough to become quite touched by their more intimate moments, most particularly a breakfast conversation on Jay’s birthday.

Rambin, as well, makes Kim just complex enough to be compelling: the slightly older girl who, perhaps too conscious of the high school pecking order, doesn’t wish to risk her status by hanging out with an underclassman ... but who seems drawn to Jay nonetheless.

All this aside, any surf film lives or dies on the basis of its wave action, and cinematographers Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope deliver the goods. Stunt coordinator Jeffrey G. Barnett also does a marvelous job “cheating” his two stars with doubles; it genuinely looks as if Butler and Weston handle all the tough stuff.

Additional authenticity is supplied by veteran surfers Greg Long, Peter Mel and Zach Wormhoudt, cast as Frosty’s “maverick colleagues,” and Hesson himself served as film consultant.

Yes, a few details have been, ah, “sweetened” along the way. The real-world Jay was introduced to surfing by his father — wholly absent in this film — and only later began badgering Frosty for additional training. Similarly, Kim and Jay didn’t meet until she was 17; their adolescent introduction here is pure fabrication.

But that’s small stuff. In all the important ways, Chasing Mavericks captures the spirit and enthusiasm of a young sportsman determined to rise to the ultimate challenge.

I hope this film finds an audience beyond its fans in the surfing community. It’s the ideal family outing — almost a throwback, in that respect — and that’s intended as a compliment.

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