I'll admit, I walked into this docudrama about the relationship between a 15-year-old fatherless Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston) and his surfing legend neighbor Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) in Santa Cruz, California, slightly skeptical. But as the film went on, I found myself getting drawn into this decidedly non-surfer-dude telling of this story of a man who basically adopts the neighbor kid and teaches him discipline and maturity through surfing lessons, preparing him to surf the legendary surf break known as Mavericks, home to what are believed to be the largest waves on the planet.
And by the end of the film, I was surprised how strong a narrative CHASING MAVERICKS was supporting. I got even more of a shock when I saw that the film was co-directed by Michael Apted (GORILLAS IN THE MIST, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH) and Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, 8 MILE), two solid filmmakers who get the help of some real-life surfing types and a great deal of astonishing surf/wave footage I've ever seen outside of surfing documentaries.
What becomes clear early on in CHASING MAVERICKS is that Frosty is not just teaching Jay how to surf the toughest waves imaginable; he's also teaching him to survive in the world and preparing him to live life as a man, since there isn't a father in his life, and his alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue) can barely take care of herself. Frosty's wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer) and he have basically taken Jay into their home, and apparently part of growing up a little faster than most kids his age involves Jay starting up a relationship with a fellow high schooler, Kim (Leven Rambin).
While the lessons taught and learned in the film are about following your dreams, Frosty makes sure that Jay does not enter into this endeavor blindly. Imagine the lessons taught by Mr. Miyagi in THE KARATE KID, and then imagine that if you screw up during the training, you might actually die. But there are other teachings as well that focus on mental abilities and collecting one's thoughts. Jay must write essays about the things that matter to him, things he observes, and things that move him. Jay is no thrill seeker with a death wish; he's a solid student willing to put in his time until his instructor says that he's ready for Mavericks. You'd think the kid was almost boring, until the final act of the film when he hits the waves.
There's a bittersweet epilogue to CHASING MAVERICKS, but it doesn't take away from the emotions and inspirational message the film delivers with subtlety. I was especially impressed with Butler's dialed-back performance as a man who has seen many of his own dreams fall flat, and refuses to see that happen to a fellow surfer while he's still so young. The film isn't perfect; it manufactures a villain for Jay to overcome—a generic high school bully. Those scenes add absolutely nothing to the film's strengths, but they don't hard it too much either. I think you'll actually be pleasantly surprised how much of CHASING MAVERICKS gets to the core of growing up and taking responsibility, even as the lead character engages in one of the most dangerous challenges imaginable.