According to the new film “Soul Surfer,” Bethany Hamilton was a born surfer. Her parents were both diehard surfers so it seemed natural when she started surfing herself. As a teenager, her potential seemed limitless until a shark attack cost her an arm and put her dreams in jeopardy. “Soul Surfer” tells the true story of how Bethany overcame that attack with the help of her family, her optimism and an unwavering faith in God.
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Bethany (Anna Sophia Robb) begins the story as a young surfer aiming to win local competitions against her rival, Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores). The plot starts out slow as it introduces Bethany’s family, who regularly attend Church together and who love to spend time riding the waves. Along with her two brothers, the family includes Bethany’s mother Cheri (Helen Hunt) and her father Tom (Dennis Quaid). After a few surfing scenes that feel like false alarms for what’s to come, Bethany is attacked by a shark while out surfing with her friends. The shark bites off one of her arms and leaves her questioning her surfing career.
The scenes surrounding the shark attack are some of the weakest scenes in the story. Before the attack, the surfing scenes are directed in anticipation of the big attack. Like in “Jaws,” there are several shots of Bethany surfing while something seemingly lurks underneath the water. These seem out of place in a story that should be more focused on Bethany’s recovery, not on the attack itself. When the shark finally attacks, it’s anti-climactic. The story continues to stumble right after the attack. The director doesn’t seem to know where the camera should be and has it bouncing around and then cutting to close-ups of the actors as they bring Bethany to safety. After that, the camera thankfully slows down and lets the story unfold.
In the attack, Bethany loses 60% of her blood and her arm is completely gone. Her survival itself leads the local doctor (Craig T. Nelson) to call her “a living miracle.” Even with one arm, Bethany can’t wait to return to a surf board. However, her enthusiasm turns to pessimism when she struggles during a competition. Carrie Underwood (in her film debut) appears as Bethany’s friend Sarah and tries to help Bethany understand God’s plan for her.
The scenes after the recovery are where the story excels with both its plot and message. Unbeknownst to Bethany, many people have heard about her plight and are inspired by her story. Bethany seems genuinely surprised when she receives hundreds of letters from people applauding her determination.
Bethany’s story is a truly inspiring one to build a movie around. Stories like this work best when audiences don’t feel overwhelmed by the message and “Soul Surfer” never feels preachy although it has a clear and undeniable message about not giving up and faith.
Aside from the scenes surrounding the shark attack and a competition scene towards the end, I think director Sean McNamara does a solid job with the material. It’s well-told and well-acted with a solid supporting cast including Academy Award winner Hunt, whose presence in films is always welcome. Robb also does a commendable job in the lead role as a regular surfer who eventually becomes something more.
“Soul Surfer” is not to be missed by families who are looking for some solid entertainment.