Soul Surfer

Soul Surfer is the miraculous true story of Bethany Hamilton who, as a young teenager and semi-professional surfer, lost almost the entirety of her left arm in a violent shark attack while surfing with family friends.  Within a month, Bethany was back on her board, back in the water and back to winning competitions.  She is now, at the age of 21, a professional surfer.  She is truly an inspirational young woman, but does the film based on her amazing story live up to reality?

Its a hard call.  One very clear issue I have with the film is how overtly positive it is.  The world movie-Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb)  lives in has so much positivity oozing out of every orifice, its hard to really ramp up the drama or struggle in any real way.  She lives in a nice home that is so close to the beach, it almost seems unfair.  Her parents (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) , both former surfers themselves, are almost creepily supportive of everything she and her siblings choose to do to the point that all the children are home schooled so they aren’t “cooped up” during peak surfing hours.  Not to mention her church made up of people who’s lives are such a permanent vacation that the only clothes they own are things that can be worn over their bathing suits.  When Bethany is attacked, everyone is so calm and maintains such an “everything is going to turn out alright,” attitude, that its hard to see why we should even care why she lost an arm.  A lot of that is due to the overly Christian nature of the movie though.  Look at the title.  This is God’s movie, not Bethany’s.

After Bethany loses an arm, you expect to see a certain level of struggle as she tries to figure out how to live life without it.  Instead, Bethany keeps smiling to such a degree that it becomes almost uncomfortable.  When she first arrives home after the attack, we see her try to help the family make sandwiches.  She can’t cut the tomato because she doesn’t have a second hand to hold it from sliding off the cutting board.  She cant get out the meat, because its in a zip-lock style bag.  She cant open the bread because of the twist tie.  She storms out, frustrated with the battle she faces then, moments later, sits down at the dinner table.  Her brother reaches out to hold her hand for grace and as soon as he realizes his mistake, she places his hand on her shoulder, smiling reassuringly.  “Everything is going to turn out alright.”  When Bethany decides to return to competitive surfing, her dad lines up a series of surfboards on the beach.  He points to the largest at one end of the line and says “We have to get you from this, to this,” motioning to the smallest surfboard at the other end.  What follows is a four minute montage of her surfing on an ever-shrinking series of boards.  She doesn’t struggle, she just moves through them with ease, again, begging the question, why should we even care?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel that way about the reality of what happened.  I just think the movie made things move along too positively.  I think questioning what you know and struggling with reality makes coming out the other end a whole and complete person all the more emotional and that just didn’t happen here.  We never saw Bethany question her faith, her family or herself.  She has a few moments where she gets upset, but those moments almost always pass in the few seconds it takes for someone to hug her and say “everything is going to turn out alright.”  I find it hard to believe that the real life Bethany didn’t sit up at night struggling with the reality that was thrust upon her.  I don’t think I can name a single person who, at that age, didn’t spend at least a few nights surrounded by the dark cloud of self doubt, rage or grief.  I can’t imagine that after losing an arm in a random shark attack, Bethany wouldn’t find herself struggling to find emotional footing.

Director Sean McNamara, for all his Stepford Wives positivity, at least did one thing right with this movie.  The film is gorgeous.  Stunning Hawaiian landscapes act as the backdrop, all white sands, clear skies and beautiful oceans.  The surfing scenes are all shot well.  You can easily follow the action, but its much more stylish then holding a static shot as they move through the water.  The only really bad part visually is the shark attack itself, where a SyFy quality creature pops up out of the water then immediately disappears back into the depths.  Its so quick and without struggle that you can practically hear the shark say “Yoink,” as it takes Bethany’s arm and a large chunk of her surfboard down with it.

For all it’s wide-eyed, big smile positivity, Soul Surfer is a satisfactory inspirational film, it just tries too hard to be inspirational.  It is so concerned about making you feel that “everything is going to turn out alright,” it forgets that most people will struggle with things in life and want to know that even for somebody like Bethany, the struggle is part of coping with and overcoming adversity.  In the film, Bethany’s youth church leader gives a demonstration in which she shows objects on a screen so zoomed in its impossible to tell what they actually are, the lesson being that sometimes you need to step back to see things clearly.  I can’t help but feel that the same can be said for Soul Surfer.  It was so concerned with making people feel inspired by a girl who became a hero for so valiantly dealing with great adversity, that it forgot to show us either her dealing or the adversity.

RATING: 5/10

~ by Andrew Craig on May 3, 2011.

2 Responses to “Soul Surfer”

  1. I couldn’t agree more! When I walked out of this movie all I was left was wow that shark attack sucked! And, wow if I lost my arm I would not be that postive. Yes, there are people that are that postive BUT not at that age. What I think I enjoyed the most out of this film was like you said the Hawaiian landscapes. I went to Oahu last year and I loved that just about everything in the film was something that I saw first hand. If someone loved the landscape and wants to see it all in person you can. It all took place in northshore and that was northshore.

  2. Thanks Debbie. Glad to hear the review sat well with you. Make sure to keep checking back regularly for reviews of all new movies, video games and fun top five lists from the various members of The Fandom Menace and if you havent already, follow the links in the right column to “like” us on facebook, follow us on twitter or download our bi-weekly podcast via iTunes!

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