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Soul Surfer (A Movie Review)


Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Craig T. Nelson, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Sonya Balmores Chung, Carrie Underwood, Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu, Jeremy Sumpter, Branscombe Richmond and Cody Gomes.

Screenplay by Sean McNamara & Deborah Schwartz & Douglas Schwartz & Michael


Directed by Sean McNamara.

Distributed by FilmDistrict. 105 minutes. Rated PG.

The problem with “inspirational” dramas is the fact that they are usually so determined about the life-altering importance of their story that they tend to be humorless and often downright sanctimonious.

Take Soul Surfer. Please.

Soul Surfer is based on the story of Bethany Hamilton, a young aspiring professional surfer who briefly became a sensation on tabloid television a few years ago when one of her arms was bitten off by a shark while she was in training for her first major tournament.

Suddenly this cute, perky young athlete had to relearn everything, but with a lot of patience and a lot of help from God, she was able to learn to surf again.

It is a sad, tragic story. But, not to sound a little crass, but is surviving a shark attack really inspirational?

How is Bethany’s story any more important or life affirming than any other person who learns to deal with becoming unexpectedly handicapped?

Is it because she was young and cute (and blonde)? Because she had wanted to be a star athlete – a goal which she may or may not have reached? Because she is a Christian?

Apparently, some people think so, because completely separately from this film, Bethany is the focus of a radio ad campaign from “The Foundation for a Better Life” at something called (Yeah, I want to learn my values from the internet…)

That ad states: “She knows a hollow from a double up. She does snap backs, backsides, shoots the curl. Bethany Hamilton knows everything about surfing. She just didn’t know about the shark. But just months after the attack, and with only one arm, the thirteen-year-old surfs again. And now she’s ripping it better than ever. So the next time life puts a little fear in you, just think of Bethany Hamilton hanging ten on top of a heavy wave. That's real Courage… Pass It On.”

Okay, is it just me, or is that commercial kind of creepy? Are they suggesting in order to live a better, more values-laden life you have to get your arm bitten off? Why are they even assuming we know who Bethany Hamilton is (if not for the mention of the shark, I would not have recognized the name) or that we would like to emulate her?

And the movie feeds into the same vibe, though not quite as blatantly.

Yes, a horrible thing happened to Bethany Hamilton. And yes, she met it with as much courage as she could muster up. I respect her for that.

However, does that give the movie the right to preach at me and drop little Bible quotes on me for almost two hours?

I don’t think so.

If Bethany Hamilton’s religious beliefs helped her to conquer her fears, then good for her. However, not everyone has the same religious beliefs. The film is supposed to be telling a story about an injured athlete, not pushing to convert its audiences religiously.

Therefore any real drama is smothered in the film’s real agenda, to get people to embrace their idea of values.

It’s a waste of some fine acting and some gorgeous surfing footage.

Anna Sophia Robb – a fine young actress who has been edgy and interesting in previous work – does her best to give her saintly character a little nuance. But it’s all for naught, the script does not allow Bethany a single surprising or interesting moment. Instead, we get cheesy platitudes like “Love is bigger than any tidal wave or fear.”

Old pros Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt are marooned as her parents – an odd combination of hippie surfer Zen attitudes with born-again self-righteousness. Country singer Carrie Underwood plays a too-good-to-be-true teacher/preacher who is only there to be selfless, be giving and spout the I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, but God must have a plan speech.

I hope that Bethany Hamilton’s real life is more interesting than this film makes it seem. The feeling that Soul Surfer imparts is that she is a martyr to the family values cause, losing her arm to find her path in life.

There must be easier ways.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: July 29, 2011.

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