Published: April 13, 2011
Directed by Sean McNamara
Teenage girls dealing with the trials of adolescence aren’t new to the big screen. Trade high school for surfing and you’ve got the opening of Soul Surfer. Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) and her best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson, as in daughter of Jack Nicholson) live a pretty sweet life, and the tropical images are not the only evidence. They wake up in the morning and surf and sneak out at night and surf, spending more time in the water than on land.
Based on the true story of the real-life Bethany’s attack and recovery, the memory of the national story is ever-present. Knowingly, the peaceful surfer ideal cannot last long, lending the underwater shots an ominous feeling. Resting on her board in the calm water, Bethany is distracted with thoughts of being a professional surfer as her friend goes on and on about bikinis and photo shoots. With the exception of a dubious special-effects shark, the attack is sudden, believable, and captivating. Out of the blue, her arm is gone and there is fear and urgency as she is rushed to the hospital.
Reassurance that she will pull through comes quickly after the attack, and, as Bethany recovers from the traumatic amputation of her left arm and excessive blood loss in the hospital, her determination to return to surfing starts very early, introducing the movie’s use of humor to lighten tension.
Bethany’s struggle to come to terms with her new life is a roller coaster of optimistic highs and disappointing lows. Robb gives a dynamic performance that drives the movie’s emotional journey. The shark attack was around Halloween, and Bethany paddles out again by Thanksgiving only to struggle with something that was once so natural. Her parents, played by a sun-kissed Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, offer different sides of the same coin: He’s the fix-it dad always pushing forward, she’s the reflective mom dwelling in the present. With her parents’ support, Bethany momentarily gives up on surfing. Focusing on other interests, she travels to Thailand to do tsunami victims’ relief work and, in a very cute moment, reconnects with the water when teaching the children to surf.
Faith and religion form the phantom limbs to this story, as Bethany’s faith has a very visual and metaphorical presence throughout. Carrie Underwood gives an honest attempt at acting as Bethany’s youth minister and, aside from some awkward dialogue, is another example of the exceptional support system Bethany has in her road to success.
Surfer isn’t short on familiar Christian values, such as the belief that everything happens for a reason and trying to see the positive in every situation. And Bethany’s story is no doubt an inspirational one: A young girl with great promise is tested by a traumatic loss but with strength, faith, and a loving community comes out the other side a celebrated champion—all played out against the backdrop of picturesque Hawaii waves. It’s almost too sweet to believe it’s true.
> Email Alyssa Bianco