REVIEW: Soul Surfer [2011]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: PG | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: April 8th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: TriStar Pictures / Affirm Films / FilmDistrict
Director(s): Sean McNamara
Writer(s): Sean McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Douglas Schwartz & Michael Berk /
Sean McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Douglas Schwartz & Michael Berk and Matt Allen,
Caleb Wilson & Brad Gann (story) / Bethany Hamilton, Sheryl Berk & Rick Bundschuh (book)

“Dad, please don’t cry”

With ten different writer names credited—whether attached to the book, screen story, or screenplay—and a director in Sean McNamara, you can’t help but think Soul Surfer would have fit nicely alongside his previous Disney Channel fare. Not that it doesn’t work effectively as something more than a movie of the week, it’s just that the religion, search for hope, and drive to succeed against all odds makes it palatable for the types of audiences targeted by the cable station. I realize that might seem as though I’m belittling the true story put on display, but that is not my intention. I just found myself wondering if there really was more to the story than what was on the surface. I’m not quite sure there is, but by the end I was able to appreciate the message on display and get caught up into the fervor surrounding Bethany Hamilton’s triumphant return to the water after a shark took her left arm.

It’s easy to forget just how young AnnaSophia Robb is supposed to be playing in the role. Seventeen during the course of filming, you do lose the fact that Hamilton was only thirteen when her life was changed forever. To think that a girl so young was able to not only survive the attack, but also willingly go back into the water as soon as her stitches were removed is miraculous. I think the film may actually gloss over the fact she isn’t afraid, the tenacity and drive shows amazing mettle and unwavering faith in her God despite questioning what it all meant. Impressionable in her youth, I can only imagine the thoughts flowing through her mind, especially someone so close to her church and family. To think a loving God could allow her dreams of becoming a professional surfer end so quickly on the cusp of her first step towards making fantasy into reality would crush a lesser soul. Bethany somehow pushed through and came out stronger than ever.

I can forgive the production for skewing older on its casting because the performances are effective and the point of telling the story remains. No matter what life throws you, you just have to roll with the punches and overcome adversity. And with a family as steeped in spirituality as that onscreen, it is tough to tell the tale without God being central. But while Soul Surfer is overtly Christian, I don’t think it’s overly Christian. The Hamilton clan needs their beliefs to get them through such a trying time, Bethany needs her youth group’s trip to Thailand for tsunami relief to gain clarity on her situation, and whether God was labeled by name or not, whatever religion you follow would come through in the fact this young girl calmly and composedly rose above horror to victory. If she wins the national surfing competition she still strives to partake in at the end of the film isn’t the climatic moment. It’s all about growing as a person and looking inside oneself to find the inner strength to go on, helping others in the process.

I’m sure the real Bethany needed the love shown here to rise higher than her infamy, to not get bogged down in negativity and end up ‘that girl who had her arm ripped off by a shark’. We are shown some of the stares, media frenzy, and the questions, but also the love surrounding her. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt are the perfect embodiments of parents who understand the laidback lifestyle of Hawaii—his Tom and her Cheri impressive surfers in their own right—as well as levelheaded enough to realize their children need education, responsibility, and compassion. McNamara goes for the cheap scares at the start, constantly shooting in the water from beneath, a foreboding feeling knowing a shark will arrive soon, and his use of it almost turns the story into a cautionary tale of listening to your parents and following the rules. The night before the accident was ripe for such a message as Bethany and best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) snuck out for a midnight surfing party, but thankfully Hollywood’s penchant for sensationalism didn’t alter the tale for heavy-handedness.

Bethany’s life itself is a soul-searching experience that honestly needs no help in the heavy-handed department, the ‘perfect’ family—shown with a few requisite cracks on behalf of squabbles between father and son (Quaid and Ross Thomas)—doing the job nicely. Between them and the Blanchards at their side, this young girl would be smothered with love before any depressive thoughts of failure could set in. It is Holt Blanchard, Alana’s father (played by Kevin Sorbo), who actually saves Bethany’s life having been supervising the girls’ practice session on the fateful morning. The incident is shown realistically, the angle allowing the shark to appear briefly, the blood stream clouding the water the only real graphic aspect. And it’s Sorbo’s and Robb’s performances in this trying sequence that resonate the most; their calm under pressure one more sign of the miracle occurring before our eyes. I also enjoyed the aboriginal chanting playing in the background.

As for the rest, the trip to Thailand almost derails the momentum built up. The trip is essential in the evolution of Bethany’s character, but what’s shown is too tritely composed, combining what I can only assume was days of work into the whimsical coaxing of a little boy into the water—him afraid in the aftermath of tragedy where she was not. Couple the rushed feeling with Carrie Underwood’s unfortunately sub-par performance as Sarah Hill, her spiritual advisor and leader of the trip, and this touching look at survival almost turns into the Bible-thumping sermon I feared it would end up. But thankfully the trip does its thing and serves its purpose to get us back into the waves for Bethany’s big contest at the close. The green screen budget here does appear to have been spent on Robb’s post-work to remove her arm—this effect is great—since the surfing shots are at times laughable. Thankfully the villain of the film, Malina Birch played by surfer Sonya Balmores, keeps things real.

Soul Surfer is nothing more than you’d expect it to be, but that shouldn’t be a detriment. We all need a good uplifting story about rising above one’s tragedies and Bethany Hamilton’s fight has it in spades. Perfect for the whole family, I’m sure many parents will enjoy showing it to their kids if for nothing more than the chance to watch Keoki (Cody Gomes) show this girl that people—boys especially—can still find a one-armed victim attractive, body and soul. And while the kids have that message ingrained, the older bunch can enjoy some cool surfing. Just don’t forget to watch the credits for the real-life Bethany to show you how it’s done.


photography:
[1] Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) and Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) are competitors on the water, best friends on shore.
[2] Helped by her youth leader, Sarah (Carrie Underwood), a trip to Thailand after the tsunami shows Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) that others are suffering, too.
[3] From left to right – Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, AnnaSophia Robb in SOUL SURFER. Photo Credit -Mario Perez. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and TriStar.

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