Movie Review: Chasing Mavericks is an After School Special With Really Big Waves

“We all come from the sea, but we’re not all of the sea,” Gerard Butler intones in voiceover as the image of a teenage boy floating peacefully underwater ripples across the screen. “We children of the tides must return to it again and again.”

So right from that first shot, Chasing Mavericks seeks to imbue its extreme-sports story with a deep spiritual and philosophical significance.

Unfortunately for its ambition, too much of the film employs After School Special-style storytelling. Every emotion is spoken about, remarked upon, or gestured grandly. Every character choice is underlined, with exclamation points. Its messaging is in big, bold lettering: “Hey, kids, there’s always a path to your goals if you face your fears” and “Hey, kids, drugs and alcohol are for losers.”

Based on a true story, Chasing Mavericks depicts California teenager Jay Moriarty (Jonny Weston) as he trains to surf “mavericks,” gigantic waves (some as tall as five-story buildings) that were once thought to be a myth. He pesters his gruff-but-warm-hearted neighbor Frosty (the Scottish Butler, with an inconsistent American accent), an expert surfer who’s ridden mavericks for 20 years, to teach him all that he needs to know to not get killed in the attempt.

Jay has an unreliable, alcoholic single mother (Elisabeth Shue) and quickly latches on to Frosty as a surrogate father. Frosty has two children of his own but early scenes establish how he’s reluctant to get close to them. It’s his wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer) who pushes him to become the dad that Jay has never had.

Their training sessions take on a bit of a Mr. Miyagi-Karate Kid cast, as Frosty forces Jay to tackle assignments seemingly unrelated to surfing — like writing an essay about his greatest fears — in order to reach his goal. He’ll have to be able to hold his breath for more than four minutes, and to have strength enough to paddle a surfboard 36 miles from Santa Cruz across the bay to Monterey if he hopes to surf mavericks. Jay dutifully, and somewhat endearingly, draws a chart on a piece of poster-board to track his progress.

When it sticks to its straightforward surfing scenes, Chasing Mavericks is unremarkable but harmless enough. It’s in its other storylines, especially those that establish Jay as an outsider at school, that the movie is sometimes outright laughable. For instance, an early scene features Jay as an 8-year-old being menaced by a scowling bully of a kid wielding an aluminum baseball bat. A few minutes later, when the movie suddenly jumps forward seven years, that bully is still hanging around the same spot, holding the same bat, spouting the same odd insulting nickname at Jay, “Little Trash.” Jay’s crush on the popular, older girl next door (Leven Rambin) and his falling out with his friend (Devin Crittenden) who’s getting involved with drugs are treated with the same level of subtlety.

I’d like to say the surf scenes are so impressive that they make up for the rest of the nonsense, but even those underwhelm. In a few it seemed obvious that Gerard Butler’s face had been superimposed onto an actual surfer’s body via special effects, and it ruined the moment entirely.

By the time Jay finally paddled towards that terrifyingly monstrous wave, I was too aware of the movie’s fakery to fear for his life.