[26 October 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“It’s a miracle, that’s what it is.” Frosty (Gerard Butler) shakes his head as he drives, the boy he’s just saved from drowning in the passenger seat beside him. The kid (Cooper Timberline) looks appropriately dazed, having just spent minutes under water off the California coast, the surf crashing over him in spectacular fashion. The camera cuts back to Frosty, grizzled and weary and not finished: “You just used up your entire allotment of dumb luck.”
So begins the saga of Jay Moriarity, whose true life and early death provide a rough template. The eight-year-old boy is meeting his mentor in this early scene in Chasing Mavericks, and in fact, his dumb luck is not over yet. He’s about to find out that Frosty not only a brilliant and locally renowned surfer, but also that he lives across the street. And oh yes, Frosty has a difficult personal past, which syncs up neatly with Jay’s, as both are living without their dads and feeling frustrated when the women in their lives—Jay’s mom Kristy (Elisabeth Shue) and Frosty’s wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer)—too obviously embody their responsibilities. For both Frosty and Jay are surfers, or, as Frosty puts it, “children of the tides.” As such, he goes on, they “must return to [the sea] again and again,” leaving behind their jobs and their homework, riding forth into the biggest, hugest, most awesome waves ever.
This inclination makes for some sensational surfing footage, as the “Mavericks” of the title refers not only to the children of the tides’ inherent and oh-so-romantic rebelliousness, but also to Maverick’s, the site of legendary waves at Half Moon Bay during El Niño, named after a German shepherd and rising to 25 and 30 feet. As little Jay grows up to be slightly bigger Jay (played by Jonny Weston), he and Frosty develop a friendship based on respect (the kid calls his sensei “Sir”), drills (paddling and breathing), and obedience (the student must arrive on time for each lesson, write essays on “The Power of Observation” and “Fear”).
As the teacher also comes to see himself more clearly, to share his knowledge and love his student, the formula of Chasing Mavericks is all too clear. Worse, much worse, the execution is clumsy. YOu know what happens, even if the scenes are awkwardly cut together and the plot turns are visible from miles away. Jay will train for months to surf Maverick’s, sneaking out in the early mornings, working at a pizza joint at night, yearning for his beautiful blond classmate Kim (Leven Rambin), and sometimes confronting a bully named Sonny (Taylor Handley), who carries a baseball bat. He also suffers betrayal by a supposed best friend named Blond (Devin Crittenden) and humiliation in front of All The Other Boys. And if you think Frosty might provide a lesson in courage or determination, well, he’s got his own issues. As Brenda tells him again and again that even if he’s sneaking off work to surf, he needs to remember his kids, one baby at first, then another in the section of the film marked “Seven Years Later,” which means she appears too frequently With Child on Hip.
Just so, as Frosty slowly absorbs the full meaning of his father-figuring for Jay, he also comes to be a good dad to his daughter: he even brings a book home one night to read to her, so that Brenda can smile wisely in the foreground as he makes his way to the bedroom at the back of the frame. You might read the film as a series of lessons on parenting, on how to be present, how to be nurturing, and how to be grown-up. While the mavericks represent a kind of abstract freedom and achievement, they also become a framework for a very regular masculine bonding story: the women wait at home (or on the observation cliffs or sometimes on a surfboard just offshore) and the men go forth.
All this is not to say it’s easy to be paternal toward Jay, who is rather a too perfect young man, eager to please if sometimes immature, doting and sweet and possessed of a beatific spirit. He’s also alarmingly bland, which makes his inspiration more generic than, well, inspiring. (The real life Jay has inspired a slogan-like mantra “Live Like Jay”.) Most often, this process is shaped as a lesson learned: Frosty needs to commit to a goal beyond his own surfing feats and to trust in someone beyond himself. Kristy too has a trajectory: an alcoholic lamenting her husband’s abandonment and her own grim future working retail, she appears repeatedly in bed or in the kitchen, moaning with her arm over her eyes or leaning over a plate of food her son has made for her. In the end, she’s up and at ‘em, just in time for Jay’s big morning: when he’s going to surf Maverick’s, she’s scrambling eggs for him. Way to go, mom!
The same goes for the best friend and the bully and the girlfriend, all of whom mistreat our hero until they don’t. When at last they see the light—pretty much literally—they recognize in Jay a model of hard work and dedication and generalized faith (did I mention this is a Walden Media movie?). Even as he marks off each day’s achievement on the chart on his bedroom wall—how many minutes he holds his breath, how many miles he paddles—Jay becomes the conduit for everyone else’s revelations. It’s not a little too bad that in so doing, he fades into the background of his own story.