BOTTOM LINE: One-dimensional characters and lack of conflict sink this glossy, idealistic film based on the true story of one-armed surfer Bethany Hamilton.
Based on the inspiring true story of Bethany Hamilton, director Sean McNamara’s Soul Surfer has a Lifetime-meets-Disney Channel feel to it that makes it more appropriate for TV than the big screen.
AnnaSophia Robb stars as Bethany, a talented young surfer who loses her arm in a brutal shark attack during a morning surf with best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson). Having grown up in a family of happy-go-lucky surfers (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt play her parents), Bethany initially struggles to accept the fact that she may never surf again. However, her small group leader, Sarah (Carrie Underwood), helps Bethany come to terms with God’s supposed plan for her during a post-tsunami trip to Thailand, allowing Bethany to overcome her setback by perfecting a one-armed surfing technique.
Before I get into the problems with the film, I’m going to say straight up that I enjoyed it. A lot. I felt good about life as I left the theatre. To borrow a phrase from the TV world, Soul Surfer is a “blue sky” movie — a story placed in a gorgeous, constantly sunny location meant to whisk viewers away to a happy place. The shots of Hawaii and the ocean are breathtaking, and, CGI or not, the surfing scenes are beautifully done. The sequences immediately following the shark attack and during the final competition are particularly stunning. The characters are also very likable, even if (or perhaps because) they’re underdeveloped. The main character is strong, but not annoying. We want her to succeed, and when she does, we feel the same elation she does.
Unfortunately, the beautiful setting feels at odds with the story. Soul Surfer is the perfect example of what happens to real-life stories when Hollywood makes them over. The movie portrays Bethany’s undoubtedly complex, traumatic experience on the most superficial, idealistic level, with almost no conflict to be found. Everyone close to Bethany is too perfect, her parents, brothers, best friend, love interest, and fellow town members too one-dimensional in their unwavering support. Underwood’s unwarranted optimism is particularly frustrating. The audience needs to accept that Bethany’s lost arm poses a significant threat to her emotional well-being, but we don’t: everything just comes too easily for her. As a result, the character has no low point to recover from, and the filmmakers need to push a fake fictional villain (rival surfer Marina, played by Sonya Balmores) to keep viewers engaged. How can viewers be inspired by a seemingly effortless comeback?
Many of the problems stem from the use of religion as an excuse to skim over the deeper issues at hand. Faith is belittled in the film; it’s simplified and turned into some all-powerful force that shouldn’t be questioned. Lost an arm? It’s God’s plan. Prosthetic replacement doesn’t work? It’s God’s plan. Tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of people in Thailand? It’s God’s plan. That statement carries so much weight, yet Bethany never once questions it throughout the film. I know the real Bethany has said many times that faith got her through the trauma of the experience, but this is not a biography; this is a feature film. As such, the filmmakers need to realise that not all members of their audience will blindly accept Sarah’s blithe explanation like Bethany.
The casting is somewhat lopsided, with Robb, Quaid and Hunt delivering moving, believable performances despite the questionable material they had to work with. The rest of the actors are just as dull and one-dimensional as their characters, though I have to admit Underwood did better than I expected.