Chasing Mavericks captures Santa Cruz surf culture

Famous Surfer Magazine cover of Jay Moriarity 1994 wipeout at Mavericks

When the first scene in the recently released film, Chasing Mavericks showed a panorama of the Santa Cruz coastline, the audience inside the theater began whooping and hollering.

While this film may not play well in Ohio — but what could considering the weight of the White House world falling on citizens of that electoral bellweather state this week? — I thought it was, for the most part, a realistic, well-told, often thrilling ride through our local surf culture, especially in the ’90s.

That it told the poignant story of Jay Moriarity, who would drown in a free dive in the Maldives in 2001 at the shockingly young age of 22, framed Chasing Mavericks in somewhat somber hues.

Even 11 years after Moriarity’s death, it still gives pause to see characters on screen replaying the monumental wipeout then then-16-year-old surfer catapulted into in 1994.

Chasing Mavericks, of course, rises, and rises some more, on the strength and power of the Mavericks waves — along with the entire scene at the now fabled and ominously dangerous surf spot near Half Moon Bay. The cold ocean, the muted colors, the wide sweep of white water and suddenly towering walls of water, along with the thunderous roar of crashing waves is captured on the big screen in all its wildness.

Critics have said the film relies too much on a cheesy “Karate Kid” tale of mentor and kid facing life’s innumerable tests, and I suppose that’s true. But I also felt that Jonny Weston, who played the young Jay, was just right in his role — even in dealing with his hardscrabble upbringing in the Pleasure Point surf ghetto (also captured well by the filmmakers). Even Gerard Butler was able to infuse his role playing Frosty Hesson — still part of the Eastside surf scene and with a new book out recounting his own Jay story — with a kind of touching world weariness that was eminently believable.

Are there cheesy moments? Sure. But as Sentinel reviewer Wallace Baine wrote last month, Chasing Mavericks might not garner raves from critics, but will quickly become the essential Santa Cruz movie, supplanting forever “The Lost Boys” or any other pretenders to the throne. And as a Hollywood vision of Surf City — complete with local characters and big wave surfers playing themselves on screen — it holds up, like a glassy early morning wave at the Point — which is exactly the point.

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