Soul Surfer – 2011

Directed by Sean McNamara

Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Craig T. Nelson

Written by Sean McNamara, Deborah and Douglas Schultz, Michael Berk based on the book by Bethany Hamilton, Sheryl Berk, Rich Bundschuh

Faith-based films have been a force in the movie world for the last few years, after getting a big send off by The Passion of The Christ, The Chronicles of Narnia series, and The Blind Side.  Soul Surfer is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a champion surfer who suffered the loss of her arm in a tragic shark attack while surfing with her best friend and fellow champion Alana Blanchard‘s family.  The following months find her battling with myriad issues, including family, faith and media.  She pushes herself at first, and then pushes away, and then finds a certain peace in the end.

How she gets there follows a pretty straightforward approach.  Its effectiveness is tied to the ability of the actors to portray the situations honestly.  In this case, you pretty much know what you are going to get from Dennis Quaid, Kevin Sorbo and Craig T. Nelson.  The real surprise was seeing Helen Hunt after so many years of relative anonymity.  She gives something within her range, to be sure, but that range far exceeds many of the actresses that could have been cast in her role.  Frankly, that the makers of the film based upon this book chose to go after so many established actors shows that they understood the potential of an inspirational family film in The Blind Side era.

The acting in the film varies from “just happy to be here” (Underwood, whoever plays the brothers), to a touch over the top (Quaid) and just right (Hunt, Nelson, Robb).  The important part is that the film is not littered with non-actors the way that Fireproof was.  A positive message is one thing, believability is quite another.  Some of the surfing scenes with the adults leave something to be desired, and the actual shark attack is appropriately brief, given its animation was so comical.  Overall, however the surfing is done well for the competitions, and the arm is decently done with green screen effects.

AnnaSophia Robb carries the burden of the film as well as can be expected.  Her performance is vital, as it must appeal to little girls without scaring them, and not make the adults cringe with syrupy emotion.  Helen Hunt gives a performance that shows that she can still portray one going through thoughts and emotions and stay in character.  Carrie Underwood’s performance is a bit brittle, but you can tell that she is doing the role because she believes in the message.  My guess that anyone who likes this film is not going to be terribly thrown off by one timid performance.

Likewise, the film flows pretty well, until the trip to Thailand.  It truly was a good choice to include this part of Bethany’s life to give some genuine perspective.  When they get off the bus, however, and meet the white helpers on the ground, and before even taking their bags off their shoulders are literally thrust into a line of people lugging bags of rice, it seems to be a little forced.  The rest of the trip seems better, especially when viewed with the scenes of the real Bethany during the credits.  These scenes also lend credence to the ending of the film, which is positive, but not artificially so.

Soul Surfer is the rare example of a true family film.  One that appeals to children as young as 5 and adults for literally the same reason.  That said, even if it is not a waste of your time to spend the evening with your children going through the issues that arise while watching, it is not the kind of film many adults would just pick up and put in after Pride and Prejudice or Die Hard.

She knows she’s beautiful, thanks be to God.

The Christian angle of the film is subtle.  They go to church to start, and Carrie Underwood shows up from time to time to cheer her up.  God is not so much as mentioned throughout the remainder of the film. This leads one to the conclusion that the nature of the business is that one be shown as religious, but not so religious as to offend anyone who may have a few dollars, but not as much faith.

Making the film worthwhile, however, is the decision to show Bethany Hamilton accepting a Teen Choice Award during the credit sequence.  Standing in front of thousands in the theater and millions watching TV, she walked to the microphone with more confidence than a teenager should have, and thanked Jesus Christ.  The video above shows that she stumbled on her way to the stage. Stumbling never stops her. Blessed be the name of the Lord, indeed.

(*** out of *****)

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