PETER MEL -- big-wave surfer, actor, movie consultant -- stood outside the Santa Cruz premiere of "Chasing Mavericks" wearing the look of a proud big brother. And why not?
"Chasing Mavericks" had trained its glossy, big-budget Hollywood lens on the surfing culture and did something unheard of: It got it right.
The visual stunner is built around a meaningful storyline, told true to spirit through believable characters. It's a surf flick that doesn't make you want to stand up and shout in your best Jeff Spicoli voice, "Dude, this is garbage, bro!"
The film, from veteran directors Michael Apted ("The Chronicles of Narnia") and Curtis Hanson ("8 Mile"), takes the genre of ocean culture to places Frankie Avalon, Keanu Reeves and Sean Penn could never comprehend. And therein lies the difference: sincere investment.
While the front-line actors (Gerard Butler, Leven Rambin and Jonny Weston playing real-life surfers characters Frosty Hesson, Kim Moriarity and the late Jay Moriarity) were not surfers and did not grow up in surf towns such as Santa Cruz, they went to great lengths -- even dangerous lengths -- to understand the material they were portraying.
It still would've been easy for the cheap-thrills Hollywood machine to muck it up. Credit a production team committed to bucking the trend, by shooting on site in Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay and by employing the careful watch of consultants such as Mel, Hesson and the Moriarity family.
"As a surfer, you wonder: 'Am I going to be proud of it?' or say, 'Damn, they did it again,' " Mel said. "I actually am proud of it. First and foremost, they hit the mark on Jay and his legacy. And it's also a pretty real portrayal of the sport we do."
Oh, it's not perfect. Butler's pesky brogue and a somewhat clumsy brushing past of topics such as surf turf wars and localism are glaring. There also is some looseness with fine details that will gnaw on longtime observers of surfing, Santa Cruz and the monster wave near Half Moon Bay.
But the core is solid, a humanity ever-present -- which was perhaps inevitable with the focus on the ebullient Jay Moriarity. He was the quick-smiling Pleasure Point kid who became an instant patron saint for stoked human beings everywhere upon his drowning off the Maldives in 2001. ?He was 22.
"Live Like Jay" had remained a key virtue inside and outside of Santa Cruz surf lineups for more than a decade after Moriarity's death -- long before Hollywood came knocking.
"Chasing Mavericks" zooms in on a 12-week period in the winter of 1994, when Hesson, a restless big-wave hunter whose charging days are numbered, tucks the young high schooler struggling to help keep his single mom afloat under his wing. A rigorous Mavericks training crash course ensues, as does a relationship like Mr. Miyagi and Daniel from "The Karate Kid" -- only with intense cross-bay paddleboarding and essays on swell observation and fear supplanting fly swatters and car wax.
The father-son relationship between Frosty and Jay and the inevitable pairing of Jay and Kim are nice complements to the overall theme: What drove a 16-year-old kid to strive for something only the heartiest -- some would say craziest -- adults ever aspire to?
Fortunately, there are some tangible -- dare we say believable -- answers provided about Moriarity's inner tickings. And the visuals captured above and below the water at Mavericks, not to mention a sound quality that rumbles beneath theater seats, should leave moviegoers with a true appreciation for big-wave surfers.
Butler certainly has one. He endured a frightening two-wave hold-down at Mavericks and was rushed to the hospital when a wave shifted while filmmakers were trying to frame a paddleout shot in December. Even though that was on a "small day" by Mavericks standards, those 20 feet of whitewater -- and the ensuing test of mental and physical strength -- will be seared into Butler's brain forever.
What could speak more to the authenticity of Hollywood's first true surf film?
Mark Conley is a deputy sports editor for the Bay Area News Group who lives in Santa Cruz and follows the world of surfing and Mavericks. Follow him at Twitter.com/MarkConley.
'chasing mavericks --*
Rating: PG (for thematic elements)
Cast: Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue and Leven Rambin
Directors: Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson
Running time: 2 hours ___
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