A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2011


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

There 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 trooper. 

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 there, uses 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.  Suuuuuuurre. 

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?

  H O M E