There is a life-lesson that has always resonated with me and sounds a little bit like this: “Sometimes you have to endure the bad to get to the good.” I’ve heard this told to me in many different ways, whether by my wife, my parents, a priest, or even from someone I might’ve just made an acquaintance. It’s a lesson that has had many applications, even as a reviewer.
To my welcomed surprise, it’s a lesson that exists on different levels in Soul Surfer. One young girl’s life mirrors the lesson’s sentiment. Getting the movie made on a real Hollywood dollar is certainly another. So, did Hollywood really have to tell the story?
Bethany Hamilton was a young girl with strong connections… Strong connections with her loving family, God and the perfect wave. Her natural surfing abilities brought her a number of trophies and sponsors before she entered her teen years. To any outsider, it might look like Bethany was quite grounded in her life. Suddenly tragedy struck when, at the age of 13, a large tiger shark bit off her left arm. Bethany’s resolve and faith were to be seriously tested. Those who endearingly followed Bethany’s story know her outcome.
Soul Surfer director Sean McNamara is markedly more comfortable in the family-rich Disney television arena, helming such likable fare as Even Stevens and That’s So Raven. However, he does well here in his first big-screen test. First off, he had to overcome the challenge of presenting viewers with an incredibly true story already told by the media, then by Bethany herself in her 2004 biography, and yet again, in the 2007 documentary Heart Of A Soul Surfer. Then there was the added burden of making a believable Hollywood surf movie with compelling faith-based elements. Indeed, he had no easy task, but embracing it all, McNamara shows us Bethany’s story is still worth telling.
With a little help from Bethany herself, McNamara convinced Anna Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) to take on such a stirring role. Robb is simply wonderful to watch as she wrestles with her anxieties and God’s intended plan. I find though that McNamara’s greatest directorial strengths are best exhibited in the more family-centric scenes of the film. Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid are lovable to watch as Bethany’s sun and surf loving parents, but there is a new, notable dynamic as they and Robb display raw sincerity when capturing the Hamilton’s distraught emotions in times of crisis. Most of the supporting cast is impressive too, including Lorraine Nicholson as Bethany’s best-surfing-friend, Alana Blanchard and Kevin Sorbo plays a Herculian role as Alana’s father Holt, whose nerve remains unbroken in the throes of tragedy.
To convey the inevitable onscreen, McNamara finds a way to noodle around with our minds a bit – teasing us with enough plentiful underwater shots, tricking us into thinking the shark-attack will come “this” time, and when it finally does, it truly is alarming to witness. McNamara doesn’t need to rely on showing us the cringing gore, our brains give us that unavoidable part.
At this point in the story, Soul Surfer begins to really move through the surf and the soul. Too many times past, surf scenes have succumbed to gimmicky interpretation in a Hollywood film, but I was totally stoked by most of what I witnessed here. The believability was helped along in some part thanks to Bethany’s and Alana’s skill on the waves. But there is one exhilarating scene in the film which particularly speaks volumes on an aesthetic and spiritual level. Bethany gets back on her surfboard just three weeks after the attack and struggles to find her balance with just one arm. The scene communicates that Bethany isn’t simply looking to maintain a balance with her surfboard but with her life as well, in which waves of water are symbolic of challenge and unwavering inspiration. The religious subtext doesn’t become overtly preachy, but most definitely stirs a viewer’s own genuine character.
At times the movie feels too formulaic, and sometimes the CGI does translate poorly, but I firmly believe that we’re asked to look past all of that. It’s the story that is key. Bethany struggles to heal, both physically and mentally. She is passionate and determined and questions her “fate.” She lived through an unthinkable, horrendous experience at a young age, yet so much surprising good has flourished from it in the days and years following. Despite her physical impairment, Bethany has inspired multitudes of people who have also suffered through life’s unavoidable trappings, and given us a story so soul fulfilling, not even Hollywood could mess it up.