Veteran directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted collaborate to tell the inspirational true story of a young surfer who dedicated his life to conquering one of the world's biggest waves in Chasing Mavericks (after Hanson was sidelined due to health issues, Apted was forced to step in and direct the remainder of the film). Although a stilted setup might lead some to suspect that two is a crowd when it comes to telling such an intimate story, the pair work in perfect harmony in terms of both style and storytelling once the main plot becomes apparent, leaving us with a beautifully shot tale of friendship and perseverance that effectively builds dramatic momentum as the confrontation with the mammoth titular wave swells subtly in the background.
A Santa Cruz teen with a natural-born talent for surfing, Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) can't resist the temptation to conquer the mountainous Mavericks surf break after witnessing veteran surfer Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) perform the feat firsthand. Moriarity realizes that his lack of experience could spell doom if he attempts to do the same, so in order to ensure that he's well-prepared, he seeks Hesson's wisdom in achieving his goal. Meanwhile, as the two surfers establish a close bond that gives them the strength to face any challenge, Moriarity struggles to summon the courage to express his feelings to his lifelong love Kim (Leven Rambin), as well as prevent his best friend Blond (Devin Crittenden) from throwing his life away with drugs.
As with anyone's life story, it's difficult to decide exactly where to start -- especially when you're dealing with a figure who accomplished so much, yet died so young. By choosing to focus on a crucial event that nearly cost young Moriarity his life, yet helped him form the foundation of a lasting friendship with veteran surfer Hesson, screenwriter Kario Salem undoubtedly makes the right decision. The problem is that the young actors cast in the roles of Moriarity and Kim -- his eventual wife -- aren't exactly up to the task, giving the opening scene of Chasing Mavericks the feel of a made-for-television movie with extravagant production values. It's a noticable blemish that unfortunately carries over into the first act of the film, as Moriarity spies Hesson conquering a mythical wave and the elder surfer becomes his mentor. However, as the bond between the fatherless boy and the man who never knew his parents grows stronger, so too does the connection between the screenplay and the performances.
Meanwhile, Salem strives to make Moriarity and Hesson three-dimensional by alternating between multiple subplots that reveal as much about each of their backgrounds as it does the nature of their personalities. For Moriarity, that means trying to take care of his damaged mother while harboring a crush on the seemingly unattainable Kim (who continually ignores him at school), and attempting to prevent a good friend from stumbling down a dangerous path; for Hesson, it means making a conscious effort to be the father he never had, and keeping a difficult promise to his wife. Such a formidable juggling act might have been difficult for some directors, but Hanson and Apted do a commendable job of connecting us with Moriarity and Hesson as their friendship gradually morphs into a surrogate father/son connection. With Butler confidently playing the role of the sage veteran and Weston displaying the glow of a determined young dreamer unwilling to waver from his path, the drama genuinely resonates, and the danger is palpable when the time comes for Moriarity to face Mavericks.
Of course, none of this would have mattered in the slightest if we didn't genuinely believe that Butler and Weston were actually out there on the water, braving the massive waves without the assistance of computer animation. Thanks to cinematographers Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope (The Matrix, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy), it's all entirely convincing -- even when it looks as if Moriarity has been crushed under the weight of a churning mountain of water that seems tall enough to pierce the clouds. So should you find yourself shifting in your seat during the opening act, it might pay to remember that, like most amateur surfers, Hanson and Apted get off to a shaky start in Chasing Mavericks; but once they find their balance, they ride the incredible wave of Moriarity's uplifting tale with the sure footing of the seasoned pros they truly are.