Based on the true story of Hawaiian teenager Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm in a shark attack when she was just 13, Soul Surfer can easily be compared to inspirational sports movies like Hoosiers, Miracle, and Rudy. And it should. But it also deserves another level of appreciation, not only because of the severity of the events (reportedly, had the shark bitten even two more inches further up her arm, Bethany would have died) but also because it’s about the struggle to get back on top. And that, often times, is more difficult than just getting there in the first place.
In the prologue, we learn that Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) began surfing almost before she could walk. By the time of the shark attack in October 2003, she had, while barely even a teenager, just earned an endorsement from RipCurl and was coasting to the top of the surfing world.
The actual attack comes about twenty minutes into the movie as Hamilton’s surfing the North Shore one morning with her best friend and fellow expert surfer Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson) and Alana’s family. While certainly jarring and moderately bloody, it’s not gory by any means, and credit goes to director Sean McNamara (Bratz) for filming it as tastefully as he did.
After being rushed to the hospital, Hamilton slowly begins her recovery, eager to return to the water as soon as she can. With the support of her parents Cheri and Tom (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) along with her two brothers, Hamilton gradually adapts to her new life, in the quest to not only just surf again but to actually get back to the top of her sport.
Aside from being inspirational in the conventional sense, Soul Surfer is also inspirational, Christian-wise. Religion plays a large role in Hamilton’s life, and bible quotes, church groups, and Christian messages are lightly sprinkled throughout the movie (though not nearly so much as to be overly preachy).
Because Soul Surfer is based on a true story, it’s difficult to criticize elements of the screenplay, not knowing what’s real, what’s exaggerated, and what’s just made-up. By and large Soul Surfer works because, at its heart, it’s a terrifically compelling story. There are moments, though, including the arrival of the ‘villain’ competitor (dressed in a black swimsuit, no less) that you may roll your eyes a little. Written by McNamara, along with Deborah and Douglas Schwartz and Michael Berk (all three of whom blessed us by being the brains behind Baywatch) the script can’t help but feel a little contrived, but given that this is (a) a family movie and (b) destined to be played in Sunday Schools across the country annually, it can be forgiven for the most part.
Robb gives a very sweet, honest portrayal of Hamilton, and she’s bolstered by solid performances from Hunt and Quaid. Singer Carrie Underwood also does a fine job in her first film role, though she’s woefully underused as the youth pastor who Hamilton turns to for support.
The cinematography is enough to make you want to book a Hawaiian vacation tomorrow, and the last fifteen minutes or so is genuinely-compelling, stand-up-and-cheer stuff.
In the end, Soul Surfer works as a nice, heartfelt, inspirational movie—and the best if-you-fall-off-your-bike flick in a long while.
And seeing the real-life Bethany Hamilton in action during the closing credits only brings it home more.