Life ain’t comfortable.
It was never meant to be. Our muscles grow stronger through toil and stress, our brains sharpen through use and challenge. We’re built to push ourselves, because it’s only when we reach the edge of what we think we can handle (and maybe a bit beyond) that we learn what we’re made of … and perhaps why we were made.
You wouldn’t think Jay Moriarity was made to surf. The kid was nearly swept out to sea when he was 8; he’d be dead now if a local surfer hadn’t been in the exact right spot to pluck the boy from the water.
“Well, you just used up your entire allotment of dumb luck,” the surfer tells him.
If the kid had any sense at all, he would’ve developed a nice healthy phobia of the ocean, eventually moved to Wyoming and that would’ve been that.
But when Jay went underwater, the sea didn’t just get into his lungs; it permeated his blood, filling him with an enduring love of the ocean’s beauty and danger. The next day, he patches up an old surfboard with rubber cement and duct tape, then dives back into the very thing that almost killed him. And except for pesky interruptions like work and school and mealtime, Jay rarely leaves it for seven years.
The next time we see Jay, he’s one of the best young surfers in Santa Cruz, Calif. But there’s something more for him out there in the waves: He can feel it. And early one morning when he sees Frosty—that same grizzled surfer who saved his life—head off to the coast under the cover of darkness, he secretly hitches a ride to see where he’s going.
When the van finally stops, he sees it—rising and writhing like a cobra in the gray light of morning: Mavericks, a towering wave, perhaps the biggest in the world.
Most prudent surfers, seeing a wave like Mavericks, would ooh and ahh and head back to saner waves near softer shores. See, Mavericks is too big, too powerful. Getting hit with a wave like that would feel like being smashed in the face with block of marble. It’ll hold you under for minutes at a time, squeezing every last breath out of you ’til you’re nothing but a husk, a piece of flimsy flotsam. Mavericks is a cave full of wolves and a street full of Crips. It’s the wave of death.
But when Jay sees Mavericks, he doesn’t see any of those things. He sees what he was meant to do.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Jay enlists Frosty to help him train to take on Mavericks, and Frosty throws him into a 12-week regimen to strengthen his “four pillars” of humanity: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual (though he admits he’s a bit lacking in the fourth). And through that regimen, Jay pushes himself like never before—body, mind and heart.
It’d be easy to conflate Frosty with The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi, only with prunes for fingers. In many ways, Frosty, like Miyagi, is more than a teacher here; he’s a surrogate father. And he fills the void left by Jay’s absent dad.
But in many respects, Jay’s often the real role model in the relationship. While Frosty only takes on his responsibilities reluctantly, Jay has been exhibiting bravery and self-sacrifice for years. Even his first run-in with the surf at 8 was precipitated by him rescuing someone else’s dog. He’s just 15 and 16 during the course of this story, but it’s he, not his mother (Kristy), who seems like the adult in the Moriarity household. He protects his mother from all comers—be it a renter who’s threatening her or her own horrible habits. He wakes her up to make sure she gets to work on time. He washes her clothes. He loans her money.
And his peers can’t understand why he doesn’t go to the high school parties like everyone else.
So Jay arguably teaches Frosty as much as Frosty shows him. Through Jay’s influence, Frosty comes to grips with his life, with his responsibilities. He fixes up his dilapidated kitchen and begins reading to his daughter.
When Frosty’s wife dies, the older man becomes suicidal with grief. Jay finds him floating in the middle of nowhere—above the deepest waters they know. Jay demands that Frosty come back and deal with his grief like a man—parroting back all the lessons Frosty’s fed him over the last few weeks.
But what happens, Frosty asks, when he can’t lean on his four pillars?
Lean on “the fifth pillar,” Jay says. “Me.”
Frosty’s fourth pillar, that of spirituality, is not dealt with often here, but we do see flashes of faith. When Frosty asks what to tell his children about where their mother went, her father says, “Tell the truth. She’s at the side of God in heaven.”
“Well, I’m not sure I believe that right now,” Frosty says.
We also feel an overriding sense of purpose—that Jay was, for some reason, “meant” to challenge these massive waves and inspire others around him. When Frosty plucks a young Jay out of the water, he sputters about how lucky Jay was. “It’s a miracle, that’s what it is,” he says. “And I don’t believe in miracles.”
We hear a glancing reference to evolution as the film opens and closes: “We all come from the sea,” says a narrator, “but we are not of the sea.” A surfboard is called a “sacred spear.” Frosty mimics the cadence of the Ten Commandments, telling Jay, “Thou shalt not ding Frosty’s board or damage his neighbor’s car.”
Jay, his friend Blondie and his future wife, Kim, take an illicit trip to a closed pool and dive in. Blondie strips down to his briefs, Jay to his shirt and boxers, Kim to the bikini she has on underneath her clothes. Kristy is shown in her bra and in a top that reveals cleavage. When Jay asks Blondie whether he’s ever felt a calling—something that is “the reason I’m put here,” Blondie says sure, Every time he sees Baywatch.
Couples kiss. A bully makes an insulting remark about Jay and his longboard, asking what he’s compensating for. Jay returns the insult in kind, referencing the bat the bully holds.
Kristy is assaulted by someone renting the Moriaritys’ back room: We see her cowering on the floor as the renter seems ready to hit or kick her. She kicks back. Jay then attacks the renter, and the fight moves to the front lawn. Blondie eventually pulls Jay off as the police show up. Blondie and Jay also get into a scuffle with the bully and some of his crew at a pizza joint. Jay and Frosty play a game of “Mercy,” which Jay painfully loses. Someone knocks off car mirrors with a baseball bat. Surfers push and shove for the best waves.
But it’s the surf itself that deals the most damage here, pounding and punishing all who dare share space with it. Jay nearly drowns in the pounding waters a couple of times, and as a kid a wave smacks a board into his face, leaving his lip bloodied.
In the end—and this is the big spoiler we warned you about earlier—two people die. I’ve mentioned that Frosty’s wife dies. She suffers a stroke, and Frosty finds her lying on the kitchen floor. But Jay dies as well—not surfing, but deep diving in the Caribbean. We see his lifeless body floating peacefully in the water as the last bubbles from his allotment of air escape upwards.
One use of “p‑‑‑” and a reference to something that “blows.” God’s name is misused three or four times. “Jeez” is said once. Name-calling includes “wuss” and “little trash.”
Kristy drinks. We see bottles of wine in the background, and an 8-year-old Jay sniffs, then pours out something his mother’s been drinking. (It actually looks like a bottle of juice or Gatorade, but the film suggests it’s been spiked.)
Blondie starts hanging with the wrong sorts of people, and we see him exchange money for … something. We never see any drugs, but the implication is clear: Blondie is using, as are some of Jay’s other peers. (Jay is dismayed by their habit.) Someone is referred to as “wasted.”
When Jay begins his training with Frosty, the grizzled surfer demands that he get written permission from his mother. Jay instead gets Kim to sign the “permission slip,” which Frosty accepts. Frosty tells Kristy about what Jay is doing—but her knowledge doesn’t mitigate the fact that Jay is lying to his mother and trying to deceive Frosty.
Jay skips school to study the surf. He stows away on the back of Frosty’s van. He trespasses on private property and nearly gets himself arrested when he’s defending his mother. Similarly, we learn that Frosty has skipped work in order to surf. And even though Frosty promised his wife that he’d not surf Mavericks, she tells him she knows he breaks that promise “every chance you get.” He’s also a pretty delinquent father for a good chunk of the movie, just as Kristy is far from the ideal mother.
Jay throws up on the way to surf.
“The men who push the limits discover that the limits sometimes push back.”
So audiences hear at the end of Chasing Mavericks—a sobering reminder that Jay Moriarity, the one who in the real world became a young surfing icon, died at the age of 22.
Chasing Mavericks is meant to be an inspirational story, and it is one. It encourages us to live every moment to the fullest, to not let the disappointments or obstacles of life stop you. It prods us to dream big and work hard to makes those dreams come true. And in Jay we have someone who, in many respects, is worthy of being looked up to.
But perhaps the film succeeds on one level too many.
What Jay does is, without question, dangerous. So it’s worth a reminder that he risks his life to chase his Mavericks. And that he does so—he thinks—without his mother’s permission.
At Plugged In, we’ve both read and reported the stories of how kids can be influenced by everything from YouTube videos to Jacka‑‑ movies. We’ve seen how they do dangerous stunts that offer no other reward than 15 seconds of embarrassing, often painful fame.
In Chasing Mavericks we’re given a real hero—one who cares for his mother and says “sir” and “ma’am” and is filled with lots of good, moral qualities. And he also has a desire that, we’re told, will not and cannot be quenched. As Frosty’s wife says, Jay will surf that wave even if it kills him. No matter what.
But what if a kid feels as though he has his own Mavericks to chase? And what if his or her parents want—or need—to say no? What does this movie tell this young adventurer to do?
Chasing Mavericks is both pretty good and pretty clean. But it’s a flick that parents and their kids should hash through together if they decide to ride its waves. There are some powerful lessons here—on both ends of the green light-yellow light spectrum. Like its namesake wave, Chasing Mavericks has the power to thrill and inspire and, if you’re not careful, knock you off your board.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.