There’s a nobility in a well-made teen movie, not least because of the rarity of the breed. These days, the typical teen movie panders with sunny fantasy or naughty raunch, but as a sports movie concerned with the physical, emotional, and moral development of a young man, Chasing Mavericks fruitfully aspires to the likes of Breaking Away.
As the title suggests, the truth-based Chasing Mavericks takes place in Northern California, where in 1994 surf spot Mavericks was still considered a myth. Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) knows better, though he and his three surfing buddies aren’t advertising their well-kept secret; all the same, fifteen-year-old Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) finds out and wants in. Since he was eight (as played by Cooper Timberline), Jay has been surfing the waves in Santa Cruz; repressing his hurt feelings over an absent father and an alcoholic, deb-ridden Mom (Elizabeth Shue); and looking up to neighbor Frosty. Though conflicted, Frosty recognizes in Jay the obsessive personality and mad love of the big-wave surfer. Thus the older man agrees to train Jay in the survival skills he’ll need to face the thirty-to-eighty-foot waves of Mavericks, on the presumption that the kid will otherwise get himself killed.
What follows hews closely to The Karate Kid, with Butler as Mr. Miyagi to Weston’s Jay-san (plus a jerkwad nemesis). On paper, the movie sounds fairly interminable, and certainly, it’s not for everyone. But as directed by the repeatedly proven Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted (who stepped in for Hanson following emergency heart-surgery complications), Chasing Mavericks turns out to be better than you’d think. And, once you get past his ever-unconvincing American accent, Butler functions better than he has since, well, maybe ever.
I have no idea if the real Moriarity was as Opie-ish as Weston and Timberline play him (“How big you reckon that wave was, sir?”), or the real Frosty as crustily reluctant (at one point, he barks, “Go on, get!” like some sort of latter-day old prospector). Even if they were, the knock against Chasing Mavericks is its constant proximity to corniness, in keeping with the co-production by Fox 2000 and family-friendly Walden Media and the attendant “PG” rating. But it’s partly just that high-as-an-elephant’s-eye corn level that allows the movie to blindside you with unexpected insight and emotion. The picture is instructive about surfing without being overly didactic, thoughtful without being overly preachy, sincere without being overly mawkish. (The exception: a moralistic subplot vaguely doling out summary judgment to Jay’s drug-dealing buddy.)
And thus, as mentor does for mentee, Chasing Mavericks will give adolescents their medicine (Frosty insists on Jay developing his perception and articulation through a series of essays, for example) along with spoonfuls of sugar (primo waves, pizza joints, and hot blond Leven Rambin as Jay’s love interest). Tragedy is never far from these characters, but above all, the picture endorses a love of life and a will to live it on one’s own terms. “If you look hard enough,” says Frosty, “There’s always a way through it.”
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]