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Soul Surfer (2011)
Movie Reviews

Soul Surfer (2011)

Despite its inclinations toward the formulaic, the true-life ordeal of Bethany Hamilton makes for a perfectly suited inspirational film.

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If Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours was meant to inspire adults, Soul Surfer is a film perfectly suited to inspire younger audiences. Both are true stories about thrill seekers who lose a limb due to the forces of nature; this time around, the subject is Hawaii native and champion surfer Bethany Hamilton, who on October 31, 2003, at the age of thirteen, had her left arm bitten off by a shark. Despite her handicap and the obvious emotional shock, she was determined to continue surfing, and she got back in the water only a month later. In 2005, with just one arm, she took first place in the National Championships for the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA). By 2007, she had gone pro, and by 2008, she had begun competing full-time in the World Qualifying Series of the Association of Surfing Professionals.

Surfing is in her blood. Her parents, Thomas and Cherilyn, were surfers themselves, and they moved to Hawaii from the continental U.S. solely for surfing opportunities. She was practically raised in the ocean; a voiceover narration at the beginning of the film tells us that, as a child, she spent more time wet than dry. What I find amazing about people like her and Aron Ralston is not that they’re determined. Determination is innate in most people, I believe. What amazes me is that they were willing to return to situations that could potentially harm them again, if not altogether kill them. In Hamilton’s case, it doesn’t even have to be another shark attack; drowning, rip tides, collisions, and even the seabed makes surfing one of the most dangerous sports there is. To be fair, I’m saying this as someone who is neither athletically inclined nor a thrill seeker, so I probably just don’t get it.

Hamilton is portrayed by AnnaSohpia Robb, who made a lasting impression on me with memorable appearances in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Bridge to Terabithia. In this film, her acting skills required more than the non-use of her left arm, which was covered with a green sleeve and digitally erased in post production; she also had to be emotionally convincing, and that’s no easy task given Hamilton’s incident. She had to run the gamut from upbeat and energetic to sullen and traumatized and sullen, and I think she pulled it off nicely. Equally as effective are Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu as Hamilton’s brothers Noah and Timmy, who both encourage her. Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid are wonderful as the parents, who, after the accident, seem torn between encouraging their daughter and being realistic. Both are devoted and nurturing – and cool, since not too many parents would let their kids go out on surfboards.

There was a bit of controversy regarding the film’s Christian elements, which arose due to the studio’s concern that it wouldn’t appeal to less religious audiences. Speaking as someone who is neither Christian nor religious, I would argue that the film is not faith-based, but rather a generic sports drama whose main character happens to be a person of faith. The real Bethany Hamilton is now and has always been a deeply religious person, so it would be highly inaccurate to depict her as someone she isn’t. If there is any proselytizing in Soul Surfer, it rests solely on secular notions: Following your dreams, believing in yourself, pushing your boundaries, and rising to the occasion. Hamilton has repeatedly asserted her trust in God, and while I have no reason to doubt her, both the film and my own research have led me to believe that her real healing came from getting back in the water and learning how to surf again.

One of the film’s best scenes takes place in Thailand, where Hamilton and her youth group help victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Two distinct moments stand out. In the first, Hamilton holds the hand of a local woman receiving medical care; in a mixture of her native language and English, she describes the approaching wave and how it swept away large amounts of the population, including her family. In the second, she coaxes a boy no older than four onto the beach and back into the water. In both instances, Hamilton’s perspective changes; she may have lost her arm, but in the grand scheme of things, she got off easy.

The final scenes are perhaps too formulaic, since they’re built around a climactic surfing contest. The filmmakers even work in one of the oldest sports movie clichés, namely the snide competitor, who in this case doesn’t take it easy on Hamilton even after her accident. I could be critical, but then again, why bring down an entire film simply because it doesn’t reinvent the wheel? There is, in fact, only one scene in Soul Surfer that I disapproved of. One night, the locals bring Hamilton’s father to the body of a shark, which hangs from its tail by a crane; he takes his daughter’s bitten surfboard, puts it up to the shark’s mouth, and realizes its teeth match the bite mark perfectly. The implication is that the shark was a cold-blooded monster, and justice has been served. This may work within the pages of a Peter Benchley novel, but in a movie like this, it’s just an unnecessary display of animal cruelty.

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi