What It Is
“I was born to two diehard surfers: how could I not have salt water in my veins?” Looking back on how she came to love the sea and surfing, 13-year-old Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) describes something like a perfect childhood: long hours in the sun, lots of support from her super-tanned parents (Tom, played by Dennis Quaid, and Cheri, played by Helen Hunt) and older brothers (Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu), and a best friend, Alana (Lorraine Nicholson), with blond hair and a competitive spirit to match her own.
Bethany’s so committed to her training that she sometimes loses track of other priorities, say, her promise to go on a trip with her church group. Still, it hardly seems fair that just a few scenes later, she’s out surfing with Alana and her also tanned dad Holt (Kevin Sorbo) when a tiger shark pops up from the water and chomps off her arm. Luckily, Holt knows how to slow the bleeding and gets Bethany to the hospital in time to save her life.
Afterward, of course, that life is very different than it was. Bethany insists she’ll not only surf again, but also win the big tournament. In the process of re-learning how, she’s caught between two choices, to embrace the celebrity suddenly cast on a photogenic one-armed surfer (her family’s front lawn is filled with tabloidy types when she comes home) or to embrace her church group (headed by willowy Sarah [Carrie Underwood]). Worldly glory or good grace? This inspirational movie doesn’t leave much doubt at any point which way Bethany will tilt.
Why It’s Fun
Based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, the movie benefits from long shots of Hawaiian beaches and beautiful people on blue waters. Some of the surfing is also thrilling, when performed by real-life surfers. Some surfing scenes, however, are plainly and unconvincingly digitized, such that you may be distracted by the obvious cutting-and-pasting effects.
The movie features a terrific central performance by Robb, who’s as charming in this earthy, frankly emotional part as she was playing the ethereal nonconformist Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia. The supporting cast is less believable (Underwood is particularly awkward in her first movie role).
The movie also offers a variety of interactions among the family members: Bethany and her brothers having fun on the beach, for example, or their parents’ thoughtful conversations with and about their children.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of surfing movies will appreciate the contests, though these are frequently narrated by media announcers who over-explain the point systems and describe for you what you’re seeing, including the shifting emotional states of competitors.
But if it’s not compelling or authentic in the same way as some surfing documentaries (Bethany has a poster on her bedroom wall for one of the classics, The Endless Summer), Soul Surfer does focus on the emotional and moral dilemmas facing a girl who felt she had everything, as well as those confronting her mother and father. Cheri wants her daughter to recover her sense of self independent of surfing, while Tom hopes that if she can surf (and win a title), she’ll still be “herself” — or more accurately, the self he wants to have back, “the way she was.” Both mom and dad learn valuable lessons too.
What To Be Aware Of
The most gruesome scene in the film is the shark attack. While you don’t see much of the actual event — no gnashing teeth, no contorting body and not too much blood, as in a similar scene in a horror movie like Jaws — the moment is potentially upsetting. The closeup shots of Bethany’s face — hectic and in and out of focus — make clear that she is shocked, pained, and at least briefly afraid. But you also see, during the 10-minute sequence showing the ride to the hospital and early moments in her hospital bed, that her courage and confidence help those around her to feel less horrified.
A second disturbing scene takes place at the family home, when Bethany first arrives after her hospital stay. A throng of reporters pushes and yells. Tom takes charge, heroically driving their car past the crowd. His kids are impressed at his action.
And a third scene that may need a discussion shows Bethany and her church group visiting Thailand after the tsunami. The destruction is striking, the people look sad, and Bethany cries when she meets some victims. She comes to see different scales of loss and devastation, and to see herself in a new light.
The film underlines the bad competitive spirit embodied by Bethany’s rival, Malina (Sonya Balmores). She’s surly on land, unpleasant in their interactions, and aggressive in the water. She finally comes around, because Bethany is just so nice.
Viewers should be aware that the film emphasizes Bethany’s Christian faith, understandably, as it is based on her real-life story.
And while the surf contests and local events showcase native Hawaiians, they’re treated here mostly as two-dimensional backdrop, as well as sources of healing and wisdom for the white family.
5 out of 10
Director: Sean McNamara
Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Jeremy Sumpter, Kevin Sorbo, Craig T. Nelson, Carrie Underwood, Lorraine Nicholson
Studio: FilmDistrict, TriStar
US Premiere: April 8, 2011
UK Premiere: June 17, 2011