Soul Surfer (2011) / Drama
MPAA - PG for an intense action sequence and some thematic material
Running time: 106 min.
Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Craig T. Nelson, Carrie Underwood, Lorraine Nicholson, Ross Thomas, Kevin Sorbo, Cody Gomes, Sonya Balmores, Branscombe Richmond
Director: Sean McNamara
Screenplay: Sean McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Dennis Schwartz, Michael Berk
Soul Surfer is a standard, clichéd sports drama of overcoming adversity, even when the future seems bleak. It's based on the MTV's 2004 biographical book of the same name relating the inspirational story of a young female surfer who refuses to give in to the result of her tragedy when she ends up losing a limb in a shark attack. Those looking to be inspired by a feel-good drama based on real-life events may find it, while those looking for a good story without the manufactured situations usually injected into these sorts of films may not.
AnnaSophia Robb (Jumper, Sleepwalking) stars as Bethany Hamilton, a 13-year-old competitive surfer living in Kauai, Hawaii. On the verge of a big competition, Bethany is suddenly attacked by a tiger shark and loses her left arm. Even with the major blow to her abilities, she isn't willing to give up on her life as a surfer, as she picks up the board and gets back in the water. However, she feels so useless out there, and on the shore, without her former physical ability, that she finds herself at a crossroads in life as to whether she will continue the seemingly futile effort to get back into competitive surfing, or whether to resolve that her disability is an impediment and to live with the consequences without the embarrassment of perpetual failure.
Longtime TV director Sean McNamara (Bratz, Raise Your Voice) benefits from the fantastic water cinematography shots of surfing, though the film does have that certain made-for-Disney tween-pic feel whenever the scenery changes to what's going on while on land. That doesn't take away from a nice performance by AnnaSophia Robb, who gives her role some nuance that might feel lacking from the rather cookie-cutter script (indeed, over a half dozen people worked on the screen story at one time or another, including McNamara), and it isn't difficult to want her to succeed in the end. Robb has two arms, so a certain kudos needs to be given to the crew that worked on the CGI, as Bethany's missing limb looks realistic, thanks to the use of green sleeve tech, in that it is shown in full detail often without breaking the illusion.
Outside of the one action-filled scene of the shark attack and subsequent rush to the hospital, the injection of other conflicts feels forced and unnecessary. An adversary is drummed up for the surfing scenes in fictional cutthroat nemesis surfer Malina Birch (Balmores, whose suit color is always black, in true villain fashion), though it often feels like a mix of "Beverly Hills 90210" and The Karate Kid. Other scenes involve Bethany frustrated by the difficulty of doing everyday things with one arm, though this would seem less of a contrivance if they weren't so concentrated in one or two scenes. A couple of instances of Bethany being overwhelmed by paparazzi are greatly overdramatized, particularly in one scene where Bethany's father (Quaid, GI Joe) heroically saves the family by manically driving them away from the danger of the cameras.
One make-or-break aspect of the film is the injection of the Hamilton family's faith and what it meant to them, particularly in their time of need. What may ruffle feathers is not that the story depicts Bethany's Christian beliefs, but that the film can sometimes feel like an infomercial for the Calvary Chapel, starting off with an extended beach service sing-along, youth group ministries in the tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated Thailand, and a very Christian-friendly depiction of teen life, devoid of sex, drinking, drugs, or even any foul language. As their faith is a big part of the Hamiltons ability to cope through grief, the highly palpable sugarcoated nature of the religious underpinnings to the story are very noticeable, to the point where one might wonder if this story is more about the Christian belief system than it is about Bethany. However, some, particularly those who are Christian, will be less critical, and may even like the film more for depicting their lifestyle in the positive, normal light they see it in, as Hollywood films tend to be rather pessimistic toward organized religion.
The film ends with real footage of the actual Bethany Hamilton, which is the only time the film truly draws inspiration, and it makes one wish that we could have seen the story as a documentary (indeed, there is short one produced in 2007 called Heart of a Soul Surfer) rather than the manufactured feel-good sports movie that it is. Bethany herself plays Robb's stunt double out on the waves, and though it isn't seamless, the physical feats are nonetheless quite impressive. Unfortunately, as inspirational as the real-life story is, it doesn't manage to translate well once it has undergone the Hollywood treatment, as McNamara and company try so hard to make this a life-changer that they leave realism, honest characterizations, intensity (the shark attack isn't built up in the slightest), and heartfelt angst behind. Bethany's inspiration to others may be potent, but the story here is presented too bland and predictable to recommend to film fans.
©2011 Vince Leo