Starring Anna Sophia Robb, Dennis Quaid & Helen Hunt
Directed by Sean McNamara
Rated PG, 106 minutes
Release date April 8, 2011
In 2003, young surfing phenom Bethany Hamilton lost nearly her entire left arm in a shark attack. Doctors said it was a miracle she didn't die from shock and blood loss. The surfing world wondered if Bethany would ever be able to return to the water.
In Soul Surfer, Anna Sophia Robb, who charmed audiences as a child in Because Of Winn Dixie and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, plays Bethany as a happy, home-schooled Hawaiian teen who eats, sleeps and breathes surfing.
The opening scenes introduce us to Bethany, her friends and her family, and everyone seems to agree: This girl is going places on a surfboard, possibly even to a world championship.
Then, one otherwise tranquil morning, off the coast of a secluded Hawaiian beach, it happens: A tiger shark breaks the surface of the water and then disappears—and so does Bethany's arm, from the shoulder down.
Bethany's parents are portrayed by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, two veteran actors who, it should be noted, hold their own in body-revealing beach wear surrounded by a cast of much younger forms in bikinis and swim trunks.
Country superstar Carrie Underwood makes a promising movie-acting debut as Bethany's church youth director. Kevin Sorbo, TV's Hercules, is the Hamiltons' close friend and fellow surf junkie, whose quick thinking the day of the attack plays a key role in the outcome of the situation.
Craig T. Nelson plays the surgeon who pronounces Bethany a “living miracle” after surviving an encounter that came just a couple of critical inches away from ending her life.
The movie uses digital special effects to convincingly “remove” Anna Sophia Robb's arm. It's the same technique that made it look like Gary Sinise, as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, had no legs.
And the surfing cinematography makes you feel like you're right there in the water, alongside Bethany as she works to adapt to having one less limb for balance and navigation.
But Soul Surfer often wipes out on underdog clichés and waves of melodramatic Hollywood cheese. Bethany's surfing rival is a snotty, hiss-able, raven-haired teen who dresses, of course, in all black. Bethany's parents and two older brothers are so one-dimensional (we never know what any of them do outside of their house or the water), they're almost as flat as their surfboards.
Everything is hyper-dramatized with the same jumpy intensity and sweeping music, whether it's a tense moment inside the curl of a big wave or an evasive move by Bethany's dad to steer around a gaggle of reporters in his front yard.
And it's so relentlessly upbeat, there are few “downs” to give the “ups” any elevation. The closest the movie comes to a moment of darkness or doubt is when Bethany snaps off the left arm of her Barbie doll, her despondent reaction to finding out that a much-touted prosthetic limb isn't going to work as well as she'd hoped.
But one thing Soul Surfer has going for it, something that will trump most any flaws for many viewers, is its unabashed depiction of Bethany's Christian faith. It's the rare mainstream, big-star movie that doesn't sidestep or marginalize the significance of a character's spirituality.
The movie's faith factor really hits home when Bethany accompanies her youth group on a mission trip to tsunami-ravaged Thailand, where she realizes a “higher calling,” a spiritual synthesis of her soul and her surfing.
You always wonder how closely based-on-a-true-story movies follow the real events they're supposedly depicting. Stay for the credits and you'll see how many of the scenes match up, almost exactly, to moments captured in some of the Hamiltons' home videos.
Soul Surfer won't wash ashore any Oscars. But if you're looking to catch a wholesome wave about a young woman's remarkable, real-life recovery from a horrific setback, it’ll take you for an inspiring ride.