Upbeat ‘Soul Surfer’ keeps it simple

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As far as inspirational true-life stories go, Bethany Hamilton’s is as moving as they get. The surfer’s optimism and determination are laudable in the face of great adversity, and the fact that Hamilton went on to become a pro surfer despite the trauma of losing almost an entire arm to a tiger shark at the age of 13 is pretty amazing.

Sean McNamara’s “Soul Surfer”, the story of Bethany’s shark encounter and journey back into the world of competitive surfing, however, leaves much to be desired.

Despite having to relearn to surf entirely, as well as having to relearn such basic tasks as slicing fruit, opening containers, and even getting dressed, the film’s portrayal of Bethany Hamilton (played by AnnaSophia Robb) remains upbeat and confident to an unrealistic degree.

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Yes, the film briefly tackles the underlying emotional struggle losing an arm entails, and does portray a frustrated Bethany at certain points, but it does so at such a surface potential that Bethany’s rise back into the surf world feels all-too-predictable. I never felt that she wouldn’t make it, and I wanted to. But this movie makes it look a little too easy; everything seems to be solved with hugs and reassuring one-liners about “faith” and maintaining “perspective”. There simply isn’t enough conflict.

The only people who seem to convincingly struggle are Bethany’s parents (Dennis Quaid & Helen Hunt), who have to battle their conflicting urges to support Bethany and push her to her fullest potential. And once the initial giggles over seeing Dennis Quaid on a surfboard are overcome, he becomes a pleasure to watch as Bethany’s dad and coach.

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Despite this narrative simplicity, though, the film does have its merits. Kauai’s cliffs and beaches present a beautiful backdrop to an onslaught of great surf sequences full of colorful waves and awesome stunts. The competition sequences were not only fun to watch, but built up a genuine sense of tension through judge commentary, familial reactions, and shredtastic 180s and tube rides, which is no real surprise considering the real Bethany Hamilton performed most of the surfing seen on screen as AnnaSophia Robb’s stunt double.

“Soul Surfer” is, however, very much a Hollywood surf movie. The surfing featured is executed well, but the movie is more about the “soul” and less about the “surf”. Hardcore surf fans looking for a movie all about the waves ought to look elsewhere.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie, however, does stem from Bethany’s faith- based conflict. The movie itself waffles back and forth in regards to its approach to faith and Christianity, two very big influences in Bethany’s life. It seems to want, on the one hand, to
showcase this aspect of Bethany’s character, but on the other to maintain a neutral approach for the sake of attracting a larger audience. The religious undertones therefore felt awkward in the film instead of natural to the story, as they should have been.

But all of that fell to the wayside when Bethany embarks on a trip to Thailand with her youth group post-tsunami. She encounters what it really means to have nothing, and the damage she witnesses helps her come to terms with her own trauma. This message hits close to home for not only Bethany, but audiences as well given the recent events in Japan, and ends up being one of the most humbling, powerful sequences in the film.

At it core, “Soul Surfer” is an upbeat family drama with messages of determination and good hope. It feels like a Disney Channel surf flick though, full of spunky young girls, pop music, and oh yeah, Carrie Underwood. It is not the nuanced and complex film it could have been, nor is it the grounded surf biopic Bethany’s story perhaps calls for.

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