A few years ago, I enjoyed reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Three things stood out to me in this excellent book, which I would recommend to anyone: 1. Franklin was remarkably creative and innovative; 2. His Christian faith, if indeed he had such a faith, was more cultural than it was true discipleship; and 3. Faith or not, Franklin exemplified a man dedicated to personal and ethical improvement.

The autobiography details how Franklin built for himself a systematic program for achieving consistency in 13 key virtues. Week after week, year after year, he trained himself, held himself accountable and tracked his progress, as he grew in honesty, industry, charity and more.

The dedication and commitment Franklin showed is stunning, a shining example of what humanism aspires to accomplish in the area of personal growth.

And believe it or not, the sadly overlooked new film in theaters this past week “Chasing Mavericks” is a fascinating and inspiring parallel to what Franklin did over 200 years ago.

The film, based on the true story of surfing legend Jay Moriarty, tells the tale of a young surfing enthusiast who discovers that the mythic “Mavericks,” some of the largest waves on Earth, break near his home in central California. Thought to be legends, these monster waves are deadly, and the teenage Moriarty enlists the help of Frosty Hesson, one of the few who has surfed and survived the Mavericks, to train him how to navigate the waves.

What follows for Moriarty is a remarkable journey of training, learning, disciplining himself, tracking his progress and being mentored to do something no teenager around him would even dare.

Frosty’s training regimen, furthermore, consists not only of surfing and water survival skills, but also training in what Frosty calls the “four pillars of a solid human foundation”: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual (though Frosty admits he’s not so skilled in the last).

Moriarty must learn not only endurance (physical), but also focus and observation (mental), and he must learn to confront his deepest fears (emotional). And … again, spirituality is neglected.

I can see parents, grandparents and teachers of all kinds dragging their kids to see this movie. The film is a lesson in “what’s wrong with kids these days,” and sets up Moriarty as an example of how to rise above the irresponsible, adolescent malaise that has infected today’s video game generation. It’s an inspiring example of what teens can really do when they set their bodies, minds, hearts and spirits toward accomplishing something.

There’s even the ending tag line, “Live like Jay,” which the movie leads you to believe has become a bit of a living motto in the surfing community.

Unfortunately, the movie itself, for all its good lessons, falls short of excellence. The story, for example, drags out and develops very slowly – to the point it might bore the audience who could learn the most from its lessons. The acting is often bland, especially from the lead, and the love-interest storyline is laughably unconvincing.

There are some beautiful ocean shots and a few exciting moments when the Mavericks really hit, but it requires moviegoers to be patient and engaged (again, two traits teens today aren’t exactly renowned for).

But one more word of caution for thinking viewers: This film is very Franklin.

By that, I mean, these “pillars” are woefully disproportionate. Like Franklin’s rather humanistic endeavor at personal improvement, “Chasing Mavericks” doesn’t really have a place for the spiritual.

The movie does address faith – in fact, at one point we see a grieving Frosty come face to face with his struggle to believe in heaven or God. But when it comes time to finally hit a home run with the spiritual lesson, the movie strikes out.

There’s a pivotal scene, really the climax scene in the film, when the first three pillars fail Frosty. He’s ready to give up, to call it quits.

“What if I don’t have the strength?” Frosty cries out. “Which [pillar] do I lean on?”

Of course, the film should have said, “Now it’s time to lean on that one you haven’t developed, the anemic one, the spiritual pillar.”

Unfortunately, the film’s actual response is a lame, brutal betrayal of the truth, the story and even Frosty’s character. It sounds good to the worldly ear, but it’s a shallow and incomplete answer.

Like Franklin, the film shows the heights of secular humanism, of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self-actualization, while dodging the deeper, spiritual truths of sin, redemption and being called to a purpose.

I still recommend “Chasing Mavericks,” but when it gets to that point where Frosty is broken – where he says, “What if I don’t have the strength? Which one do I lean on?” – I recommend yelling at the screen, “That’s when you lean on Jesus, Dude!”

Content advisory:

  • “Chasing Mavericks,” rated PG, contains 2 profanities and one light obscenity.
  • The film has very little sexuality beyond a few kisses, some shirtless guys, one innuendo about “compensating” and a slightly more steamy scene where some teens strip to their skivvies to go swimming. Despite being a surfing film, it isn’t set in Southern California, so the beach scenes are in wetsuits instead of bikinis.
  • Violence in the film is limited to some dangerous surfing action – which can be quite tense – and a bully character who breaks things and starts a near fight, but is dragged away before it gets particularly violent. There’s also a scene where a boy is swept into the water and nearly drowns.
  • The film has no occult content, but does have some religious elements, including discussions of Frosty’s struggle to believe in God and heaven, a couple of lines about all people “coming from the sea” (implying evolution), a song that sings, “Say a prayer for me,” and a scene that takes place in front of what I believe is a church of Messianic Judaism.

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