'Chasing Mavericks' assumes its place as Santa Cruz's signature Hollywood movie
That star, by the way, is right there in the film's title. It is indeed the wave at Mavericks, the mythic — though not mythical — surf break near Half Moon Bay that is the film's great white whale. The bulk of the action amounts to one big build-up to that wave, still when it comes, the majesty of it somehow exceeds the build-up.
To anyone living in Santa Cruz, of course, "Mavericks" is of intense interest. Shot in and around Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay last fall, it is the story of two individuals near and dear to the East Side surf community — the talented young surfer Jay Moriarity and his older mentor Frosty Hesson.
A local, in fact, will have a great time seeing familiar places and landscapes on the big screen — so much so that I would suggest Santa Cruzans see the film twice, once for the hometown novelty — wow, does Pleasure Pizza get a spotlight or what? — and a second time to get into the flow of the story.
Moriarity's story may be deeply familiar to many Santa Cruzans. But for those not clued in, Jay was a Pleasure Point kid with a preternatural instinct for surfing who died in 2001 in a diving accident a day before turning 23. As a
teenager, he became entranced with the
Film Image is from Twentieth Century Fox
One of those who had seen Mavericks in the early days was Frosty Hesson, young Jay's neighbor. Moriarity, showing a moxie beyond his age, pestered Frosty to train him to take on Mavericks. A skeptical Frosty eventually agreed, and the two entered into an intense regimen that resulted in one of the grandest stories in the history of Northern California surfing.
Wide-eyed Jonny Weston takes on the role of Jay with a kind of pure-hearted intensity. He lives alone with his mother (Elisabeth Shue) who can't seem to hold a job, or even get out of bed. In between lessons from Frosty, he lurks around a local beauty named Kim (Leven Rambin) and tries to avoid the neighborhood toughs.
For his part, Frosty (Gerard Butler) shares his life with his radiant young wife Brenda (a radiant Abigail Spencer) while tracking the break at Mavericks with his three friends (real-life Santa Cruz surfers Zach Wormhoudt, Peter Mel and Greg Long).
Screenwriter Kario Salem steered away from portraying the complexities of the Santa Cruz surf scene and instead chose to focus on more basic story elements, often to the detriment of the film. The drug-dealing bad guys come off as mere foils to prove Jay's goodness and sometimes seem like they slipped out of a "Little Rascals" short. And throughout Frosty is haunted, though we never really learn by what and the dynamic he has with his wife feels like something we've seen before.
However, director Curtis Hanson — who was replaced by Michael Apted in the middle of the shoot for health reasons — creates a distinct vibe of the Santa Cruz surfer that feels real to life. Gone are the Spicoli stereotypes as well as the cheesy "Lost Boys" theatrics. In its place are working-class people living messy lives who are nevertheless seduced by the lure of the ocean.
Even if you are less than enamored with the "Karate Kid"-style storytelling, the film really achieves a white-knuckles intensity when Jay has "graduated" to take on Mavericks. I've seen dozens of surf films, but rarely have I seen surf footage rendered as breathtaking as it is here. Hanson's camera seems to focus less on the surfer's prowess and more on the power of the ocean and the grace of the wave. Moriarity's famous Mavericks wipeout, still talked about today, serves as the film's dramatic center and the film portrays it magnificently.
"Chasing Mavericks" isn't likely to be Oscar material. But it is certainly something that Santa Cruz can be proud of, an earnest and heartfelt portrait of one special kid who embodied the courage and respect with which all serious big-wave surfers approach their craft. May it forever supplant "The Lost Boys" as Santa Cruz's greatest cinematic moment.