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Movie Review: Soul Surfer

By Matthew Huntley

April 20, 2011

Wait, a shark is about to do *what* to me?

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Soul Surfer is the kind of film you want your kids to see. It is bursting with heart, inspiration and positivity, and it evokes a message about faith (not necessarily the religious kind) that anyone - child or adult - would be wise to heed. That the film is also based on a true story should lend more credence to the value of its ideals. By the end, when we see footage of the real-life individuals, some of us may be brought to tears.

The real-life individual is Bethany Hamilton, a surfer who at the age of 13 was attacked by a tiger shark that ripped off her left arm. Less than a month later, Bethany would be back in the water. Not long after, she’d be taking first place in national surfing competitions. Her story and endurance are nothing short of incredible.

As a film, Soul Surfer borders on cheese. It is so pure and innocent that we sometimes ask ourselves if it’s for real. But then, why can’t it be for real? Have we become so cynical we can’t believe loving, church-going families like the Hamiltons actually exist? Most Hollywood movies smother us with conflict and misanthropy but here is one that tries to charm us with optimism. Perhaps it does go overboard with its high spirits, cheerfulness and hopeful dialogue, but such exaggeration could be a good thing for the film’s target audience, which is mostly families.

The Hamilton parents, Tom (Dennis Quaid) and Cheri (Helen Hunt), are a couple of die-hard surfers and Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) tells us in a voiceover she was practically raised in the water, along with her two older brothers (Ross Thomas and Chris Brochus). Living in Hawaii, Bethany is home schooled and spends nearly every other waking moment surfing (she even sneaks out at night to be in the water).




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One morning, while training for a local competition with her best friend (Lorraine Nicholson), Bethany is lying idly on her surf board when a shark suddenly takes her arm off. She doesn’t scream or panic, though, which some speculate helped her stay alive. She loses nearly 60% of her blood before getting to the hospital. Afterward, all she can think about is whether she’ll be able to surf again. The film does a good job of placing us in Bethany’s shoes so that we feel just how special surfing is for her. We find ourselves imagining what we would do if we could no longer perform the activities that make us feel alive and define who we are. For Bethany, it’s surfing.

The movie chronicles her brief depression, her spiritual epiphany and eventually her comeback. All in all, it sticks to a fairly traditional sports movie formula, right down to providing her a rival and a competition that boils down to the last possible second, but in this case we can see how the traditional sports movie formula sometimes stems from real life (since these events really did happen to Bethany). At various points, it pours on the emotion and squeaky-clean idealism a little thick, and the acting, save for Quaid, Hunt and Robb, is a tad wooden and artificial (the country singer Carrie Underwood, who plays Bethany’s youth minister, should really stick to her day job), but the film has such noble intentions, we’re willing to overlook its flaws.

As a critic, I can’t say Soul Surfer is especially well made. It breathes the same air as a made-for-television drama, only with a bigger budget. But its inherent story makes it worth recommending. I think a documentary would have serviced the material better, evidenced by the engaging home video footage we see at the end, but if giving this story the Hollywood treatment inspires kids and adults to be better people, it’s worth it. After seeing Soul Surfer, viewers are bound to look at the world in a more positive light and Bethany is right when she says she embraces us. By the end, we feel it.


     


 
 

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