Watch any surfing documentary and you'll hear the dudes speak – in hushed tones – about the epic waves that show up off the coast of Northern California when the conditions are just right. The Mavericks break is legendary, and for years, was considered some sort of myth by those who surfed and had never seen it.
Chasing Mavericks is about the days when that break was acknowledged as real, and the teenager, Jay Moriarity, who became famous there.
Jonny Weston is Jay, a curly-headed blond who has gotten the surfing bug from his standoffish neighbor, Frosty. The older surfer (Gerard Butler at his most gruffly charming) has a job, a gorgeous wife (Abigail Spencer) and a growing family, but his passion is surfing. All flowing locks, a regular Adonis-on-a-longboard, Frosty is one of the children of the tides, he poetically narrates. And his secret is Mavericks.
In a brief prologue, we learn of Jay's working-poor background – his alcoholic, semi-employed divorced mom (Elisabeth Shue) and his absent father. Cooper Timberline plays the 8-year old Jay, who tapes together a busted board, braves bullies and gets his nose bloodied by the surf but who sticks with it to become the best surfer kid on the block by the time he's 15.
He lionizes Frosty and stows away on the guy's ancient Ford Econoline van when Frosty sneaks off to Mavericks. Frosty trains him for that magical three-month window when conditions make Mavericks an epic ride.
The film, which arcs us through Jay's tough teen years but saves its emotional punches for the third act, tends toward the cute, as Jay's guru, his sensei, makes him practice holding his breath for four minutes and ride a paddleboard 36 miles across Half Moon Bay. He takes him on dives to explore the deadly reef that causes the wave break and assigns him essays on the power of observation.
But the mentor-student relationship works. And the surfing footage is awe-inspiring. The film captures the majesty and violence of the big waves and gives us but a taste of their allure.
What: Chasing Mavericks
Starring: Jonny Weston, Gerard Butler, Leven Rambin, Abigail Spencer, Elisabeth Shue
Directed by: Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: PG for theme and peril