When the May 1995 issue of Surfer Magazine arrived in my mailbox, I was expecting — and in fact, dreading — to see the cover adorned with Mark Foo riding the wave that ultimately cost him his life. The veteran big wave surfer had, along with dozens of others, descended upon the Northern California spot, Mavericks, after an earlier issue of Surfer had unveiled it to the world at large. Prior to that issue, Jeff Clark and a couple of his friends managed to keep the place secret for two decades. One wonders how a surf spot that sees some of the largest waves in California, is situated in between the Bay Area and Santa Cruz, and is visible from Highway 1 could escape the attention of nearly everyone. But, uh, that’s what happened. The line-up had suddenly grown from four quiet, gutsy surfers to dozens of them, accompanied by videographers, photographers, boats, and jet skis. Every young shredder from Santa Cruz — already accustomed to riding large, cold waves — was there to prove their worth. And after one season, the spot had already claimed a life.
But instead of Foo’s final, depressing wave, the cover sported another Mavericks beast. The height of this wave spanned nearly the entire page. The water was deep green, nearly black, forming a forbidding wall of water, and the lip at the top was eight feet thick and about to smash down. Tucked into the lip was a surfer, Jay Moriarity, 16 years old and dropping into his first ever wave at Mavericks. He did not make this drop. The intense winds blowing up the face of the wave caught the underside of his surfboard, and he wasn’t able to get enough momentum to ride down the wave. Instead, he remained caught in the lip, his board eventually flying up into the air, spinning in circles like a leaf in the wind while he fell 30 feet and was promptly drilled another 20 feet underwater.
Chasing Mavericks, directed by Curtis Hanson (who fell ill during filming) and Michael Apted, is a biopic about Jay Moriarity (played by Jonny Weston) covering the twelve weeks prior to this surf session and climaxing with the Surfer Magazine cover photo. Jay spends these 12 weeks training both mentally and physically for the big day under the guidance of father-figure Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler). When we first meet Jay, he’s an intense 10-year-old, obsessed with the ocean but not yet a skilled waterman. Flash forward 6 years, and he’s smacking the lip at Pleasure Point on a longboard, looking smooth and seasoned. Jay’s quest begins when he secretly follows Frosty and friends to Mavericks, watches them shred the gnar, and then decides that he too would like to drop into some bombs. Frosty grumpily resists, citing the dangerous conditions, the status of the break as a “secret spot,” and Jay’s status as a minor. But Frosty, sensing Jay’s potential to truly understand mother ocean, eventually relents, stipulating that Jay can surf there if and only if he learns the four tenets of surfy-brahdom and doesn’t give him no lip.
Weston, with his curly blonde locks and bright blue eyes, looks more like Richard from The Blue Lagoon than the real-life Jay (who sported a dark buzz cut and was built like an offensive linesman). The film situates Jay as a pillar of stability in his relationships: he has a home life shaken by an absent father and a mother who can’t hold down a job, a best pal who is falling with the wrong crowd, a soul mate who is making the mistake of hanging out with “older people,” and Frosty himself, who would rather be paddling into oblivion than hanging out with his wife and kids. Jay, a passionate youngster with a single goal, basically has to fend off all the fuck-ups around him who threaten to thwart his ambitions.
Soul-surfing gurus spouting pseudo-zen tropes about being “born in the sea” and “children of the tides” is pretty much par for any Hollywood surf movie. In Point Break, Bodhi sagely advises Johnny Utah on how to become one with the waves. In North Shore, Chandler takes Rick Kane under his wing and shows Kane the true soul of surfing. But as tired as the mentee/mentor relationship may seem, getting tips from a vet is actually quite useful! Surfing well involves comprehending a bunch of vague things that are difficult to learn without some guidance (types and directions of swells, sets of waves, tides, currents, reefs, sandbars, other surfers, etc.). Butler’s Frosty, as a gruff carpenter with a smooth surfing style (and a New York accent?) fits in well with these sage purists. He has shaggy hair, an immaculate tan, and his eyes are always scanning the horizon for the next swell. And Frosty imparts genuine surfing knowledge to Jay (that also, incidentally, can apply to his life on the land) without sounding like a waterlogged buddha. The bulk of the instruction, though, seems to take place on land, and the playful and visually stunning ocean sequences are too few and far between.
Frosty’s wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer, who happens to be the daughter of famed Gulf Coast surfer Yancy Spencer III, and the sister of pro surfer Sterling Spencer), her eyes wide and brow smooth, plays the wise, patient partner. She remains composed and understanding when Frosty, rather than raise his own kids, agrees to raise Jay from a successful longboarder to a successful big wave surfer. If only his daughters were shredders, then perhaps they’d gain his favor. But who knows, maybe through Jay he’ll discover that caring for people — even non-surfers — isn’t always a bum trip.
The PG rating ensures that the vices and temptations that ran deep through working-class, beachfront Santa Cruz, and which threatened to waylay Jay on his quest to surf big waves, are more or less restrained to the shadows. What we’re shown instead are confusing flashes of strife: a landlord beating up Jay’s mom for back rent, surf rats who threaten Jay for years without any provocation, Jay’s friend Blond (Devin Crittenden) purchasing drugs but otherwise still being a pretty cool dude. These scenes seem to be minus a couple contextual nuggets, and don’t come across as especially meaningful. There’s even a sequence at the surf spot, Steamer Lane, where Jay has a surf battle against his arch-rival Sonny (Taylor Handley), during which I could barely figure out what was happening or if someone was winning or what. (Luckily, Blond was watching from the cliff, and even though he was switching allegiances between the two every other minute, he was kind enough to cheer for Jay and laugh at Sonny. So, I guess Jay won the surf battle or something.) Additionally, the film’s discussions about feelings are often garbled in rapid-fire illogic (“I hope he isn’t being too hard on you.” “I think it’s more the opposite; that he’s being too hard on himself.”).
Clarity is attained in Chasing Mavericks when Frosty and Jay are at the beach. The coast around Santa Cruz is cold, craggy, windy, and exposed to the winter swells that come marching in from Alaska. When Mavericks is doing its thing, the swells hit the reef, pitch quickly and thickly, and then roll like thunder all the way to shore. The cinematography takes a few cues from IMAX, showing soaring panoramas of the volatile, unfriendly playing field before thrusting us neck-deep in the ocean, where 30-foot waves land on the audience’s heads. The intensity of these big waves is punctuated by deafening claps as they smash into exposed rocks. And Chad Fischer’s score fulfills the epic, supposedly-heroic nature of the men’s actions (the rest of the soundtrack is made up of early ‘90s rock like Sponge, Mazzy Star, and The Offspring).
Big wave surfers train to survive wipeouts. Falling is inevitable. When you’re getting pummeled deep underwater, up becomes down, down becomes up, and twelve seconds becomes an eternity. The level of courage and training one needs to surf these waves is not easily mustered in a measly twelve weeks. When Jay paddles out on that fateful day and eats shit on his first wave, it’s easy to conclude that he’s in over his head. These waves cannot be tamed. Jay and the other surfers out there are threading the needle, holding on for dear life.
Jay and Frosty are drawn to the ocean, and to the most intense situations that it can offer, for reasons that essentially can be narrowed down to “escape” and “ultimate rush” — perfect fodder for a Hollywood flick. But Hollywood surfing movies are often lousy, and they’re always subject to harsh scrutiny by surfers. The fear, I think, is that the lifestyle will be reduced to stereotypes, the act of surfing will be glorified with terrible cliches about “inner soul oneness,” and, worst of all, the surfing sequences will have major continuity errors. As the film’s executive producer, Butler, for his part, put effort into making the film “authentic.” He hired seasoned vets to advise, train, and serve as actors, and he made sure to have those who were closest to Jay (who died in 2001 while diving in the Maldives) on board. Butler was even hospitalized after a rogue set of waves at Mavericks beat the crap out of him during filming.
But who really cares about the surfing audience? Surfers will always gripe about Hollywood’s portrayal of the sport. Give surfers a 50-minute-long glorified music video showcasing the latest talent, whose primary story line is “taking the boat out to the reef,” and they’re happy! The primary audience for Chasing Mavericks is largely not very familiar with surfing. And for this audience, the film likely confuses (I found myself filling in a lot of blanks with my own personal knowledge of the sport) while offering wonderful (non-CGI) visuals and a heartwarming, kid-friendly tale of growth and friendship. Chasing Mavericks succeeds, at times, in creating an authentic, moving portrait of one youth’s moderate transformation into a big wave surfer, but it falls a bit short when it deals with the terrestrial relationships that form, break, or are torn from you while you’re busy seeking personal glory.