Soul Surfer does nearly everything you expect it to, but it does it more likably and satisfyingly than you might think it would.
Based on 21-year-old pro surfer Bethany Hamilton’s memoir, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, it’s an inspirational sports biopic about a Hawaiian surfer chick whose devout faith helps her bounce back after losing an arm in a shark attack (at 13 in real life).
As Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb, Bridge to Terebithia) recuperates in her hospital bed, her surgeon, an old family friend, reassures her that while the list of things she’ll need to learn to do differently is extensive, the list of things she won’t be able to do at all is small.
Bethany’s personal list consists of a single item: “When can I surf again?”
It goes without saying that there will be scenes of Bethany learning to surf with one arm. What Bethany doesn’t anticipate — and what I didn’t expect from the movie — is how much attention the mundane activities she took for granted before will need now. As her family prepares lunch one day, Bethany tries to pitch in with one small task after another before giving up in frustration. Even getting dressed presents daunting challenges.
The real Bethany Hamilton says that she and her family passed on a number of dubious proposals to bring her story to the screen before finally finding a screenplay worth reading. I believe it. It’s easy to imagine Bethany’s story as a mediocre teen empowerment tale in the spirit of, say, Raise Your Voice (from the same director, Sean McNamara), or else a didactic Fireproof-style movie of interest only to believers.
Like a surfer waiting for the right wave, Bethany waited for Soul Surfer, and the ride is worth it.
Sure, it’s overly processed, with an overdone pop soundtrack, unnecessary voiceover narration and a fictional competitor named Malina Birth (Sonya Balmores) whose first name aptly indicates the bad attitude she wears on her black sleeve.
Yes, the upbeat positivity might have benefitted from a little more onscreen conflict. Bethany’s best friend Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson) is possibly more traumatized by Bethany’s loss than Bethany herself, and she can’t bring herself to visit Bethany in the hospital for days. We don’t see Alana until she has pulled herself together. We get one totally believable stupid fight about nothing in the hospital cafeteria between Bethany’s parents and her brother that suggests layers of conflict on her brother’s part that I would like to have seen more of.
Yet the film’s wholesomeness is genuine, not saccharine. Bethany’s family feels like the real deal: close-knit, laid-back, playful, affectionate. Perhaps you have to be a family of surfers living in Hawaii to be this relaxed, but they are. Dennis Quaid and Oscar-winner Helen Hunt bring warmth and low-key vitality to Bethany’s parents, a pair of dyed-in-the-wool surf nuts, and the always likable AnnaSophia is completely credible as the irrepressible, golden-haired heroine who grew up on the beach and in the surf and says that her mom used to say she suspected that Bethany and Alana were mermaids.
The Hamiltons home school, which makes it easier for Bethany to train. Bethany and Alana are such promising surfers that in the early scenes they land a corporate sponsor, Rip Curl. Church is an open-air affair on the beach with contemporary music. (A small inauthenticity: Most of the congregation seem to be listening to the band as if they were at a concert; they should be singing along and possibly clapping.) The religious content is merely a part of life, like the gorgeous Hawaii scenery (beautifully filmed by director of photography John Leonetti).
Soul Surfer teases us with the coming shark attack for just long enough so that when it actually comes, it’s a real shock. The attack is realistically sudden and understated. The real Bethany never even saw the shark; like most attacks, it was a hit-and-run, and in the film, it happens so quickly that by the time you realize it’s happening, it’s over.
What follows is a case study in cool thinking and efficiency. If any of my children ever suffers a catastrophic injury, I hope they’ll not only keep their head as well as Bethany, but that they’ll have people around them who know exactly what to do.
It would also be awesome to have a surgeon waiting at the hospital like Dr. Rovinksy (The Incredibles’ Craig T. Nelson), with the best bedside manner ever, but we can’t hope for too much. (You might think the movie is exaggerating here, but Bethany says not. Also true to life: The irony of her father being scheduled for knee surgery that same day and literally being wheeled out of the operating room after being anesthetized to free the room for Bethany, though father and daughter didn’t actually pass in a hospital corridor. Instead, her father was parked somewhere and forgotten about.)
Resilient and sunny as she is, Bethany struggles with the loss of her arm — above all, with how this could be God’s will for her life. Somehow the film avoids compounding this question with the scruples Bethany was already feeling over skipping a youth-group missions trip to Mexico in order to stay in training. Had Bethany gone on the trip, she wouldn’t have lost her arm — which doesn’t tell you anything, of course, but it can be hard not to go there.
Happily, Bethany’s youth counselor Sarah Hill (singer Carrie Underwood, unfortunately stiff in a role where more warmth would have been welcome), whom Bethany felt had been guilting her about the missions trip earlier, gives the right response: We don’t know why God allows bad things to happen. Still, it’s not hard to see God’s hand on Bethany’s life in the aftermath of the attack, both in real life and in the film.
The effects used to replace AnnaSophia’s left arm with Bethany’s stump are impressive. Similar effects in previous films required a stationary camera to allow matching shots of the background. (Watch the scenes in Forrest Gump after Lt. Dan loses his legs.) Soul Surfer uses moving and even handheld cameras throughout. Countless deceptively simple-looking scenes are actually composite shots painstakingly created out of several separate film elements.
For the gorgeously shot surfing scenes, Bethany did much of her own stunt work, with AnnaSophia’s features digitally superimposed as needed. In person the two young women are strikingly different — at 5-11, Bethany towers over AnnaSophia, who might be 5-3 — but out on the waves, you can’t tell the difference. (Incidentally, although she wears a bikini, Bethany shows some concern for modesty: When Alana examines one suit in a shop, Bethany frowns, “That’s more like an eyepatch!”
One of the film’s best moments isn’t one of the glossy, spectacular surfing sequences, well-done as they are. It’s a wordless scene in which Bethany reaches out to someone who has lost more than she has. For the most part, Soul Surfer is a likable, wholesome, good-looking movie about likable, wholesome, good-looking people. At that moment, though, it’s about a larger world in which Bethany’s loss is a comparatively minor one.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: A fleeting, understated shark attack (some blood in the water); no graphic medical scenes, though there is a brief shot of Bethany’s arm stump with stitches; a few words like “gosh” and “darn.” Fine for older kids.