Before 22-year-old surfing star Jay Moriarty's untimely death in a diving accident in 2001, he was widely admired in that world for his ability to tackle Mavericks, a big wave destination in Northern California where routine 25-foot waves (sometimes reaching 80 feet) occur during the winter months. At 16 he was photographed wiping out on one of those waves, wound up on the cover of Surfer magazine and soon found himself with a case of overnight fame.
But this movie, one that hits all the usual biopic beats without bothering to aim for a grand-scale emotional crescendo, isn't about the fame. It's not even about the ready-made cinematic splendor and energy of life on a board in water like earlier surfing films, 2003's Step Into Liquid or 1964's The Endless Summer. It's more concerned with human connection and the struggle to accomplish a huge task than it is with any sort of "soul surfer"-style nirvana.
Moriarty (newcomer Jonny Weston) needs a father after his own abandons the family and mom (Elizabeth Shue) falls apart in the aftermath. He also needs a surfing coach to teach him the ways of the giant wave. Enter neighbor Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler; Hesson also served as a consultant to directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted), who takes the kid and pushes him into the kind of lengthy, grueling training regimen the Beach Boys neglected to write any songs about. During this time they bond like the father and son neither has ever had.
And it's at this point in the film that most sports-related stories of physical achievement would aim for Rocky/Karate Kid-style catharsis. But Hanson (Apted replaced him for the final few weeks of shooting after the director fell ill) aims for a quieter approach, conveying a more monastic existence than most surf stories would cop to. To be great means to be disciplined, so when the other kids are partying and doing all the nothing teenagers tend to prefer, Moriarty behaves himself and obeys the rules of the mission. He changes his diet. He makes charts to mark his progress. He also craves a Radio Shack Realistic Weatheradio the way that Ralphie wants a Red Rider gun in A Christmas Story. He works extra shifts at a pizza place just to save money for it when he's not busy giving his cash to his always-strapped mother. That's right, this movie fetishizes very specific electronic weather reporting devices, so if you weren't sure just how nerded out the whole thing gets, now you understand.
There are problems: in its determination to depict painstaking process (they do a lot of paddling and breathing exercises here) the film fails to push the Golden Graham-like Weston into the kind of acting audiences can connect to, especially when we're meant to feel his loneliness. Butler, too, goes for stoic when an occasional softball would have actually helped to churn up the emotional swell we're meant to feel. But in the end, just enough heart is worn on just enough sleeve to make this restrained family love story one to keep. Sometimes low-key and gentle wins out after all.