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For some of us, being adventurous means trying a new restaurant or taking a different turn during the daily walk-the-dog constitutional. Then there are those for whom an adventure is climbing to the top of a mountain or riding the biggest waves of any ocean. Chasing Mavericks is a film about two such individuals—a man and a teenage boy who give insight into the mentality of true adventurers, those who live for and thirst after danger. What motivates such singular drive and passion for something most people would never dare to try?
In a moving story based on the true life events of surfer Jay Moriarty, this film answers that question by stripping away the mystique of “greatness” and showing the failings and successes, the passion and fears that define Jay’s life, as well as the life of his surfer mentor. Sadly, the answer is not as positive as Chasing Mavericks would have viewers believe. Instead, the movie’s relatively low level of negative content and attempt to communicate an uplifting message are wasted in the wake of the deeply flawed, tragically lost worldview that ultimately wipes out the good moves in the rest of this ride.
Nearly drowning under the waves of the ocean as a child would cause many people to have a life-long fear of water. But Jay Moriarty is no ordinary kid. Already obsessed with watching the sea and timing its waves near his California home, his rescue by surfer Frosty Hesson, who pulls Jay up on his board and takes him to safety, only blows the spark into a fire of passion for surfing that soon comes to define Jay’s every waking moment.
That is, every moment besides the time he spends pining for his childhood friend, Kim. By the time Jay and Kim reach high school, Kim is still friendly with Jay, but avoids talking to him in public so as not to mar her reputation by talking to a boy so much younger than herself. The limits on their friendship don’t deter Jay’s love for Kim, and he tries to talk to her whenever he can.
But even Kim cannot distract Jay from his greatest love—surfing. With no father at home and a needy mother who is more child than parent, Jay has plenty of trouble in his young life and a great need for solace. He finds that comfort on the waves, where he also seeks thrills and a sense of purpose. Growing up across the street from local legend Frosty Hesson, it’s natural for Jay to see in the more experienced surfer the image of what and who Jay wants to be.
Jay’s admiration of Frosty is proven valid when Jay sees the veteran surfer tackle a monstrous wave in a secret location that most people do not believe even exists. The Mavericks, an area with record-setting waves, is the stuff of legend and myths. Like the other surfers at Santa Cruz, Jay doesn’t realize that the Mavericks is real until he sees Frosty’s incredible ride with his own eyes.
Jay suddenly has a purpose and ultimate goal—he will surf the Mavericks, or die trying. With much cajoling, Jay convinces the reluctant Frosty to train him for this ultimate challenge, one that Frosty proves will take much time, work, and commitment for Jay to even hope to attempt. As the two work to prepare Jay, they encounter difficulties on the surf and in their homes that they must weather together. In the end, Jay’s journey to the Mavericks ends up teaching Frosty and the teen more than surfing—it teaches them about life.
Can anyone really learn about life from surfing? For diehard sports fans, the answer is an easy yes. The best sports films that transcend their genre are marked by themes and storylines that are more about the characters as individuals outside the given athletic focus. Despite a surfing-laden beginning that slows the first portion of the film for anyone but fans of the sport, Chasing Mavericks eventually finds its plot legs on dry land through compelling character development in a story that grows to be about more than riding the waves.
It is here, away from the surf, that Chasing Mavericks makes its best moves, communicating several positive messages while giving a hard, but mostly family-friendly portrayal of harsh realities. Jay, for example, in many ways earns the title of “hero” for this tale as an honorable, polite young man, who is known for being cheerful, even when his circumstances are cause for the opposite. He is an ideal role model for the young with the issue of bullying, as he responds to the insults of a surfing nemesis with unflappable self-control and, frequently, kindness. The only time he seems to think of lashing out at the bully is in an effort to defend his best friend from physical harm.
Even when Jay is mistreated or betrayed by the people he loves most, he continues to show love for them and is astonishingly quick to forgive. One of the recipients of this forgiving nature is Jay’s mother, who depends on her son for far too much and rarely acts as a mother at all. This poor representation of mothers is counter-balanced by Frosty’s wife, who is an involved, compassionate mother of two.
Frosty’s wife also has to be both father and mother to her kids for a time, because Frosty usually puts his surfing ahead of his family. Even so, Frosty clearly loves his wife, and it’s easy to see why. She stands as a marvelous ideal of an encouraging helpmate who supports her husband, while challenging him to truly become the “good man” she tells him he is.
[MINOR SPOILER WARNING] Her understanding and wisdom pay off when Frosty eventually learns how to be a better father to not only his own children, but to Jay, as well. Thus, an inspiring message of fatherhood emerges as the most meaningful of this film. This story shows that blood ties are not required to be a father and make a difference in young lives. Frosty learns to be, as Jay puts it, what a father “should be,” even to this needy neighbor teen.
These positive messages are supported by fairly tame content, particularly for a modern flick involving teenagers. There is no violence beyond a brief shoving match, a kick, and a situation in which Jay (with understandable motivation) defends his mother by tackling a man. Offensive language is confined to three or four misuses of God’s name and one use of “p---.”
There can still be storms on land, however, and Chasing Mavericks picks sandy ground for its foundation in several instances. While Jay admirably refuses to follow his friend’s example of buying drugs and even avoids parties, he does break the rules at times and engages in deception. When Kim wants to go swimming one evening, during which the pool is closed, Jay shows her how to get in the back way—a method he has clearly used on many occasions with his friend to use the pool when they aren’t supposed to.
This scene becomes of greater concern when Jay and his friend lead Kim in jumping off a rooftop into a pool below. Not only is this an example of physically dangerous behavior that parents would reasonably be concerned their kids and teens might emulate, but the scene also involves the boys stripping down to their underwear in front of Kim (Jay is wearing boxers and his friend is in briefs). When Kim decides to join in, she also removes her outer clothing to reveal a skimpy bikini and proceeds to join the boys in the pool. Thankfully, nothing more improper or sexual ensues after the three are in the pool and their interactions are quite innocent at that point, but the situation and scene is a concern, particularly since their behavior is portrayed as harmless fun.
In another instance, Jay gets Kim to fake his mother’s signature on a permission slip that he’s sure his mom will refuse to sign. Frosty and Jay’s mother are smarter than he thinks and quickly figure out what he did, but Jay is never punished or scolded for his deception.
These moments, if the only blemishes, would not be enough to completely undermine Chasing Mavericks many laudable messages. The most harmful content actually comes with the life themes extrapolated from the surfing analogy. In the training of Jay, Frosty often makes sure that Jay realizes he is teaching him principles that can be applied to all of life, not just on the water.
Among the lessons Frosty communicates are what he terms the “four pillars of the human foundation,” including a “spiritual” pillar, which Frosty freely admits he is not very good at. This confession seems to be an accurate one, since Frosty seems to have more faith in “dumb luck” and his own strength than in anything else.
In surfing and in life, Frosty tells Jay, “you can fight things head on or you can respect the laws of nature.” Because Frosty apparently believes that nature, rather than God, is responsible for the ocean and life, he believes that “there’s always a way through,” as long as one is observant and looks close enough to find it. When Frosty’s strength is gone, then, he predictably turns to Jay who has learned the lesson of relying on oneself all too well. In response to Frosty’s desperate question, “Whose power do I lean on?,” Jay answers, “Me.”
Since self-reliance is key to both Frosty and Jay’s mode of living, it’s no surprise that even friendly Jay follows Frosty’s example of self-centered living. Both of these characters have their moments of sacrifice for others, though often not without encouragement in Frosty’s case, but, when it comes to their greatest love and passion, nothing stands in the way of their self-fulfillment.
Frosty’s character is somewhat redeemed from his quest for personal satisfaction on the waves through circumstances that finally show him that thinking of others is better than only serving himself with dangerous surfing. His change is too late for Jay, who is begotten as another young man who will put everything on the line just to catch the big wave.
The risk of the surfing featured in Chasing Mavericks is not of the casual, rather safe variety done by many hobby surfers. Rather, this film portrays a highly dangerous quest to ride the biggest waves possible or literally die in the attempt. The potential for death in attempting this ultimate surfing is made clear to Jay by Frosty, and both the surfers are fully aware of what they are attempting, as are the loved ones whose wishes they often disregard at the expense of their own desires.
Perhaps this relentless quest to surf the big waves would not be quite so pointless and harmful if not for the motivations that, at least in this film, are given for Jay and Frosty’s obsession. For Jay, the reason is the cry of all humanity—the search for the “reason you were put here on this earth”—and the mantra of too many adventurers—the need to “know that I’m alive.” Tragically, Jay believes that riding a big wave of the ocean can actually be the reason for his existence and that by “becoming a part” of the wave he will then have some better knowledge that he is alive.
Frosty’s only indicated reason for why he takes the risks of the surfing is perhaps even more misguided. In his narrative that bookends the film, Frosty states, “We all come from the sea, but we’re not all of the sea. Those of us who are, we children of the tides, must return to it again and again…” Though poetically stated, Frosty’s philosophy is disturbingly representative of an evolutionary point of view, blended with a New Age-Eastern religion hypothesis that leaves viewers with nothing but myth to hold on to.
Despite the film’s efforts to put a positive spin on the consequences of the risks these characters take, Chasing Mavericks is attempting an impossible task. The film cannot give meaning to a meaningless pursuit and empty philosophies. The ultimate message thrust forth at the end of the movie, then, is disappointing and dangerous. The final moments of the film call viewers to “Live like Jay,” and include a summation of his life philosophy, which is simply that one may not have the good things of life for long, “so enjoy it.”
This popular worldview is a particular letdown, and more harmfully enticing, because of the high quality of the production. To begin with, the acting is superb in all the central roles and solid in the supporting players. Gerard Butler stands out as Frosty, commanding every scene that he is in with his usual authenticity, appeal, and emotional accessibility.
Abigail Spencer as his wife is a particularly excellent casting choice, as she can match Butler’s ability to add a palpable and magnetic reality to the character, bringing a depth to the story that comes from the acting, not the script. As the young lead, inexperienced Johnny Weston has his work cut out for him. Weston proves to be a good find, showing impressive range and an understanding of how to convey emotion with the subtlety required for camera.
This skill is particularly essential in Chasing Mavericks, as the cinematography favors close, intimate shots. The shooting of the surfing action is not up to the same level of skill and artistry found in another recent surfing film, Soul Surfer. The screenplay of Chasing Mavericks, however, is superior to the other surfing flick in its depth of themes, plethora of fully developed characters, and pacing.
Yet, all the best skills and training are not enough to save Jay or Chasing Mavericks from a nasty wipe out. The carpe diem philosophy that this film pushes is hardly a new idea, but it is always an unbiblical one. The pursuit of self-enjoyment as if there were no tomorrow could not be more opposed to the eternal perspective and self-sacrifice of the Christian life. The characters in Chasing Mavericks manage to maintain a reasonable moral code, but others in the real world who follow the carpe diem philosophy frequently shorten their own lives and/or the lives, and even societies, of others.
Yes, the usual kind of objectionable content is minimal in this film and there are several positive themes that could benefit young and old viewers alike. But, the self-satisfaction, “enjoy life” message may be too easy to swallow for all ages, especially the impressionable young. For those who don’t let this film drown their biblical worldview, the story will be sadder and far more tragic than the filmmakers intended.
Perhaps one could argue that Chasing Mavericks is a good reminder of the meaningless philosophies Christians should be careful not to absorb in this carpe diem society. But those who have the Bible don’t need a movie for that.