'Soul Surfer': Forced But Fine Telling of an Inspirational Story

Directed by: Sean McNamara, Runtime: 106 minutes
Grade: B--

It's tough to produce a faith-based film that's accessible to audiences outside their target demographic, and it's even more difficult to do so inside the confines of a true-to-life tale with a documented ending. To a certain extent, Soul Surfer defies the premises' limitations in telling Bethany Hamilton's story of determination in the face of misfortune and a crisis of faith, only peppering in core spiritual reflections where they're needed and, in the process, delivering an admirable share of competent sports drama amid Hawaii's gorgeous waves. While some of its tones border on heavy-handedness and the dialogue could use a lot of polish, AnnaSophia Robb admirably supports the story's inspirational weight, shaping it into an earnest-enough piece of family cinema that revels in its own cliches.

You've got to give director Sean McNamara a little time, though, because things start off rocky. Maybe it's because we're fully aware that hardcore surfer Bethany (Robb) will lose her arm in a shark attack that the lead-up moves along so clumsily, but hearing about her mother (Helen Hunt) referring to her as a mermaid, why she's a stay-at-home-student, and whether her mother and father (Dennis Quaid) would've let her go night surfing or not doesn't craft engaging-enough drama to distract from the anticipation. Adding in a villainous opponent for Bethany during an important surf meet, as well as employing singer (and non-actor) Carrie Underwood as Bethany's "perspective"-teaching youth minister Sarah, doesn't help, giving the front-end of the story a cheesy and manipulative attitude, even if it serves the important purposes of illustrating the surfer's early competitiveness, diligence, and belief in God's design and grace.

No big surprise here: the actual event that changes Bethany's life becomes the pivot point to Soul Surfer's strengths, justifying the lumbering introduction to her and her family. McNamara doesn't concentrate on the shark attack itself for emotional punch, the jerky visual effect during the scene really underscoring that fact; he wants to get over that violent hurdle as quick and "painlessly" as possible, so as not to discomfort his age-appropriate audience. He instead stresses the accident's magnitude by focusing on the blitzed moments afterwards to save Bethany's life, and it's here that Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt -- and even Kevin Sorbo in a small part -- earn their salt, as they elevate the labored paternal dialogue suitably, if a little out-of-water when circling faith-based themes. Bethany's father overtly reading a Bible at her hospital bedside and her mother begging God not to take her daughter both benefit from the seasoned actors' presences.

AnnaSophia Robb, however, feels completely in her comfort zone here, coming to life as the determined surfer girl with salt water in her veins, clear moral fiber, and an unflinching attitude. While the film overstresses her handicap for added effect -- one too many awkward moments occur in a row where she can't do something one-armed -- Robb makes every scene feel as heartfelt as possible, allowing her natural cheerfulness and resolute intensity to dim and intensify with the persuasive tones. It makes Bethany's down moments a lot more poignant than expected; there's one where she visits her youth minister and questions God's design after the attack, and Robb makes the audience care about her faltering faith without forcing them to necessarily think or feel the same. She makes us understand that it's important to her, and that's what matters.

In true underdog sports-movie fashion, sort of like The Karate Kid on waves, Soul Surfer places a lot of emphasis on Bethany pulling herself up by her bootstraps, retraining herself, and defying the odds, complete with a training montage and cheery mentorship. While there aren't a lot of surprises, especially if you've seen the exposition-heavy trailer, the way that the surfing is filmed against the Hawaiian locales -- especially the waves themselves, and how the young surfer cuts through them -- adds natural oomph to the familiar attitude, allowing the audience to get wrapped up in the natural essence of Bethany's tumble-heavy journey back to what she so richly loves. It'd be easy to overlook the surfing scenes, as they seem so fundamentally fixed in the story, but there's realized aesthetic creativity at-play here. You'll feel the impact of one particular wave when it swallows Bethany up in her first return to competition.

Soul Surfer has a number of flaws, namely a consistent ham-fisted attitude stemming from its overcooked script, but it still does a lot of things right and, in the process, communicates a message of having faith in one's self without appearing too cloying or exaggerated as it nears its conclusion. Could a more assured or hardnosed biopic about Bethany Hamilton's accomplished the same things? Assuredly. But McNamara's take on her reemergence in the world of surfing seems to get a lot of personal details right (based on the home video footage at the end of the film), and it's an attractively-handled, attentive and comprehensible portrait that, sure, offers a few twinges of inspiration along the way -- though, really, they're more hinged on it being a reflection of the true story than anything McNamara's done here.

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