A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2011
2011, PG, 106 mins.
2011, PG, 106 mins.
AnnaSophia Robb: Bethany Hamilton / Lorraine Nicholson: Alana / Dennis Quaid: Tom / Helen Hunt: Cheri / Carrie Underwood: Sarah
Directed by Sean McNamara / Written by McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Douglas Schwartz and Michael Berk
is as astounding true story of steadfast courage and gritty perseverance
at the heart of SOUL SURFER, which is all the more regrettable seeing as
the resulting film feels more like a saccharine and easily forgettable
after-school TV special. Not
only is the film awash – no pun intended – in every possible sports
movie cliché out there, but the drama presented within is almost tension-free and squeaky clean. That’s
kind of shocking, seeing as the film is about a 13-year-old surfer that
has most of her arm bitten off by a ravenous shark, lost 60 per cent of
her blood in the process, and nearly died on the operating table.
The film very oddly reminded
me of last year’s 127 HOURS, another
real life story involving a wince-inducing amputation that was far more
satisfyingly raw and visceral, even though I too had issues with Danny
Boyle’s stylistic choices. Lamentably,
SOUL SURFER also reminded me of THE BLIND
SIDE in the manner that it presents its main story with such a
rosy, unscathed, and simplistically naïve sheen that you almost want jump
into the movie and slap some conflict into the performers.
There is no doubt that the makers behind the scenes of SOUL SURFER
had the most honorable intentions and noble-minded reverence for the real
life people that inspired their work, but the film just feels too
dutifully and mechanically manufactured as a piece of audience placating
melodrama. Can you not have a
wholesome family film with at least a realistic presentation of the
darker underbelly of its story?
I will endeavor to assume the
script (the product of four screenwriters, which is perhaps too
many considering the resulting film) stays true to the basic facts behind
Bethany Hamilton, who is, to be fair, a real sports hero and a role model.
On October 31, 2003 when she was barely in her teens the aspiring
surfer with dreams of turning pro was attacked by a shark and had most of
her arm removed in the process. Despite
the unfathomably hellish ordeal and the mental and physical burden the
attack left on her and her family, Bethany nonetheless decided to endure
and made a return to the sport she loved.
On January 10 the following year she placed fifth in a major
surfing competition and later went on to have even greater pro surfer
success. This gal is a real
The film adapts her story from
her 2004 biography SOUL SURFER: A TRUE STORY OF FAITH, FAMILY, AND
FIGHTING TO GET BACK ON BOARD. As
the home schooled, deeply religious, and Kauai, Hawaii native explains
early in the film, Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) “spent more time wet than
dry.” She lives a nice and
peaceful lifestyle basking off the picturesque shorelines of her home
state with her loving and supportive mother and father (Helen Hunt and Dennis
Quaid) and her two older brothers, all of whom are surfers.
Bethany and her best friends have all grown up with a deep passion
for the sport and hope to enter pro competition some day.
Sometimes, Bethany’s zealot-like quest for domination in surfing
meets with some dissatisfaction from her Christian youth leader (Carrie
Underwood, long on looks and singing talent, but low on acting chops), who
wishes that she would spend more time with her mission work.
Hmmmm…surfing or mission work?
If you were 13, what would you pick?
Halloween night of 2003 would
prove to be a near devastating turning point for Bethany, during which she
and her friends snuck out of their homes, headed for the shores, and the aforementioned
shark attack took place. The
aquatic beast bits her arm right at the shoulder and took it clean off
(the scene itself is not very well realized or built up, nor does it
capture the sheer, intangible horror of what actually happened).
Due to some quick-witted thinking and resourcefulness by one of
Bethany’s friend’s father (played by Hercules, no less, Kevin Sorbo),
Bethany is taken to the hospital and treated for wounds that almost
claimed her wife. The doctor
(played very briefly by Craig T. Nelson) calls her survival a miracle.
The rest of the narrative
chronicles Bethany’s recovery, her returning home, dealing with new
found celebrity status, questioning her faith (albeit very, very briefly)
and ultimately coming to grips with the notion that she wants to make a
comeback to the sport she holds so dear to her heart.
Of things I admired about the film I will say this: (a) the
cinematography is, at times, sumptuously gorgeous for presenting many of
the film’s splendid magic hour shots (even if it stumbles a bit when it
comes to the surfing montages, which are perfunctorily handled) and
(b) AnnaSophia Robb is an attractive, natural, and appealing young actress
that nicely underplays Bethany with humility and grace.
Yet, Robb is such a decent and
headstrong actress that she deserves a better movie to appear in than SOUL
SURFER. Again, I ask,
where’s the conflict and tension in what should have been a
tension-ravaged drama? The
cherry and optimistic tone the film permeates strains credibility at times. Just consider: Bethany and her family are staunch Christians (the
film’s trailers did a very good job of hiding the its leanings to
the evangelical market), yet almost none of them – especially Bethany
– seem to really question their faith in the aftermath of her trauma.
We do get the obligatory “how could God let this happen”
tearful pleas, but beyond that, Bethany and those around her never
plausibly deal with the hopelessness, nihilism, and crisis of spirituality
that must have befallen the poor girl.
Instead, we get Underwood’s Christian leader explaining that
“God will make something good out of this situation” and all seems
miraculous healed. Yup.
Sure. Uh huh.
Even when the film is afraid
to adequately deal with Bethany’s issues with God and faith, the script
insipidly panders to audiences, offering up simplistic moral/religious
platitudes with the subtlety of a flying mallet.
It also does not help when the dialogue is riddled with real
groaners, like “Love and faith is bigger than a tidal wave.”
Ouch. There is also an
ill advised segue at one point by Bethany – working for World Vision –
where she goes to help the tsunami ravaged lands of Thailand and, while
surfing to make one poor orphaned lad smile.
Although I don’t doubt the real Bethany’s heart and passion for
her charitable work (real footage of her is shown in the end credits
working with World Vision), I found it distasteful how the suffering of so
many countless others is shamefully used to propel the narrative of the
film to a music/training montage of Bethany whipping herself into shape
for competition. The film
then also offers up a one-note sneering and conveying surfing opponent for
Bethany, dressed in black and heartless, that has her own spiritual
re-awakening at the film’s conclusion.
SOUL SURFER is not a bad
drama: it’s well intentioned, wholesome, has decent themes, and
definitely cares about Bethany’s real life story (which deserves to
be told). Yet, the manner the
film scrubs away all potential grit from what must have been a painful and
arduous recovery for Bethany is ultimately unsatisfying and unconvincing.
As a Sunday school film offering, the film will no doubt have its
wide legion of supporters. However,
a great faith-based sports film could have been made from this material
with a bit more tenacity and a willingness to dive into the darker avenues
of Bethany’s accident and rehabilitation.
SOUL SURFER is so sanitized that you almost want to throw some dirt
on the screen. Perhaps asking
for it to have more verisimilitude
was too much to ask of the director of an instantly forgettable Hilary
Duff film and a 3 NINJAS sequel?