(by Dustin Putman
Based on Bethany Hamilton's 2004 memoir (co-written by Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh) about the shark attack that took her left arm and her subsequent journey toward overcoming the odds to become a professional surfer, "Soul Surfer" tells an amazing true story—perhaps too amazing, since much of what actually happened comes off as almost unbelievable when depicted on film. As it turns out, most of the details are accurate. It's difficult to imagine a 13-year-old girl so maturely and bravely handling such a horrific event and not allowing it to alter her life's aspirations, but, not only did it happen, her miraculously positive outlook is reaffirmed by enlightening footage of the real Hamilton that plays over the end credits. The inclusion of this material is invaluable, raising what up until that point felt like a too-neat, glorified docudrama into one that the viewer can more comfortably get behind and support. As directed by Sean McNamara (whose last feature was 2007's abominably vacant "Bratz"), "Soul Surfer" remains overly glossy and could have benefitted from a tougher cinematic treatment, but its inspirational core and the sincerity of its portrayal of Hamilton remains. Article continues below
Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) lives an idyllic teenage life in Kauai, Hawaii, with parents Tom (Dennis Quaid) and Cheri (Helen Hunt) and older brothers Timmy (Chris Brochu) and Noah (Ross Thomas), all of them die-hard surfers. When Rip Curl approaches her and best friend Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson) with wishes to sponsor them, it is great news, just another step on Bethany's path toward eventually going pro. In the blink of an eye, all that changes on October 31, 2003 when she is suddenly and brutally attacked by a tiger shark, nearly her entire left arm ripped off. Bethany survives, but, as her story becomes national news, she is faced with spiritual questions about why this has happened to her and a daunting future of learning how to cope in everyday life with only one arm. Most important to her, she is adamant about returning to the water, and isn't about to let her new handicap get in the way of her destiny as a competitive surfer.
As the film portrays its subject—and as the montage of real footage at the end backs up—Bethany Hamilton is an emotionally and physically strong young woman with an awe-inspiring fortitude and spirit. It naturally takes her some time getting used to her impediment and there is a touching scene—perhaps the best in the picture—where she confides in church youth group leader Sarah Hill (Carrie Underwood) and tearfully asks, "How can this be God's plan for me?" Otherwise, Bethany more or less takes her injuries in stride and has little trouble when she gets back on her surfboard. "Soul Surfer" stays true to the facts as they have been told, even those stranger than fiction—her father's knee surgery is interrupted by his daughter being rushed in to the same hospital, for example—but there is the sense that her family life is given a rosier veneer than it probably had in the wake of the near-tragedy. Indeed, the story as a whole, once the shark attack is gotten past, provides little conflict, which doesn't consistently make for the most enthralling movie. While the solid performances, lush Hawaiian cinematography by John R. Leonetti (2011's "Insidious"), and overall technical prowess is enough to resemble a theatrical release, the occasionally bland, valiantly optimistic narrative is one that might have been more appropriate for the small screen.
AnnaSophia Robb (2009's "Race to Witch Mountain") chooses not to imitate Bethany Hamilton, but reinforces her great resolve and light in the role (she also looks quite a bit like her). Robb must have been entrenched in some serious training to prepare for the surfing scenes, and it has paid off splendidly. A stunt double is obvious in certain shots, but Robb does enough of the heavy lifting to make it believable. Beyond that, she's quite a force as an actress, navigating tricky, dramatically potent material with nary a stumble or false note. Dennis Quaid (2010's "Legion") and Helen Hunt (2006's "Bobby"), who also look to have undergone surfing school, are arguably too good as parents Tom and Cheri, giving star power to the film but not being given enough to work with in return. Tom and Cheri's relationship, which must have been strained following Bethany's incident, is brushed over as they gradually are relegated by the end to people cheering Bethany on as she competes in a junior surfing championship. In her film debut, singer Carrie Underwood is sufficient as Sarah, a smart supporting role for her to take as the project doesn't sink or swim based on how good she is, but still gives her enough to do to show that there is promise for her if she wishes to continue pursuing acting.
"Life's an adventure. That's what my dad always says," Bethany narrates in the opening voiceover of "Soul Surfer." Way too precious and cornball, it is not the best way to start the film, but it does set the tone for what is to come. Director Sean McNamara has it in him to tackle heavy subject matter—he did well with a lot of 2004's "Raise Your Voice" in his treatment of a family dealing with the untimely death of a brother and son—but he also has a tendency of overstating things. He relies too much on the music score by Marco Beltrami (2010's "My Soul to Take") to tell the viewer how to feel when a more subtle approach would have been less intrusive, and certain dialogue exchanges and plot devices (like the material with a snooty competitive surfer played by Sonya Balmores Chung) are stilted. Even with its downsides, "Soul Surfer" perseveres as a well-meaning, heartfelt drama. The extensive special effects work put into digitally removing AnnaSophia Robb's arm should not be underestimated; it is seamless. And, as mentioned, the finale's use of video from the real Bethany Hamilton's life deepens what has come before and sends the film out on a high note. Whether or not the theatrical arena was the appropriate medium with which to tell Hamilton's story is up for debate, but it is nonetheless one that deserved to be told.