So, is surfing a thing again? Because I don’t remember surfing really being a thing in popular culture since the early 1990s. And maybe that’s appropriate, since not only is Chasing Mavericks set in that time, it feels like it was made back then. And while this means it’s more than a little syrupy, broad, and over-earnest at times, it also means it’s refreshingly free of the irony, “edge”, and pop-culture saturation that are the hallmarks of more modern teen movies.
The story is based on the early career of California surfer Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), who showed an early aptitude by working out the relationship between a swell’s period and its magnitude — the longer between waves, the bigger they get — on his own before he was quite nine years old. He also showed an uncommon bravery, or even recklessness, which was noticed by his neighbor, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler).
We pick up the main story seven years later, after Jay has come into his own as a competition surfer. But Frosty, he’s noticed, sometimes bugs out early in the morning to parts unknown. Jay follows him to a remote bay where he sees Frosty surfing some enormous waves. Jay wants in, and Frosty decides to train him to survive the experience since he obviously won’t be convinced to stay away.
Alongside the training regimen, we have a slew of sidelines designed to highlight not only Jay’s mental and emotional growth, but that of his mentor as well. Jay’s single mother (Elisabeth Shue) struggles to hold down jobs; his friend (Scott Eastwood) seems to be falling in with a bad crowd; his childhood sweetheart (Leven Rambin) won’t talk to him in public. Meanwhile, Frosty is has difficulty engaging as a husband to his wife (Abigail Spencer) or as a father to his daughter (Maya Raines).
All of this can get pretty saccharine at times, and if you watched many kid-friendly films in the ’80s and ’90s the turns will all be pretty obvious. But there is comfort in these formulas, and the story is accessible to kids while avoiding a descent into either an overly preachy tone or into histrionic teen angst.
Not only are the plot’s tropes drawn from the early ’90s, but the soundtrack is packed with hits from that era’s Southern California alternative rock scene. I don’t know how they resonate with current tastes, but it was a nice little treat to hear once again from The Offspring, Mazzy Star, and, of course, the Butthole Surfers. Maybe this means I’m now the age most people have kids old enough for this movie.
Anyway, the real draw isn’t the somewhat dated plot, but the surfing. And directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted capture some amazing footage of the big waves on Maverick’s Point. These thirty- to forty-foot walls of water dwarf the surfers, and the white foam on the surface makes the sport look more like downhill snowboarding. Great, big, booming breakers curl around the actors; an awesome spectacle that reminds us why “tubular” was a slang term, back in the days when surfing was a thing.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.