Film Review: Soul Surfer

Slick, visually exciting, inspirational Christian drama based on the true comeback story of a teen surfer who loses her arm to a shark.

Potentially as gruesome as the similarly amputation-themed 127 Hours, this film about the aftermath of a horrific shark attack that left a teen surfer without her arm, is, paradoxically, remarkably uplifting. The carefully crafted upbeat tone has much to do with the magnificent scenes of Hawaii, the beaches, the ocean, and the brilliantly captured surfing sequences. Soul Surfer is sun and fun most of the way and should score nicely with family audiences of all religious persuasions.

The film’s feel-good/look-great leanings are also in sync with the undisguised Christian intentions of the filmmakers and no doubt with what the real-life true believers who inspired this movie wanted.

The onscreen story isn’t the thing here because we already know it, if not from the actual news coverage a few years back than from the very nature of its inspirational genre and by-the-numbers adherence to these genre strictures. The movie is blatantly a tool of the film’s mission to convey the importance of love, faith, hope, charity, etc. in our lives. But so what? Everyone in the water for this one!

The real-life Bethany Hamilton no doubt deserves this celebration of her courage, determination, generosity and faith. The year is 2004. Lovely, bubbly, athletic teen Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb), living on Hawaii’s Kauai Coast, triumphs in surfing contests and is on the path to win bigger competitions. She competes with best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) and has the support of a close family, including her trainer/surfing-vet dad Tom (Dennis Quaid), mom Cheri (Helen Hunt), older brother Noah (Ross Thomas) and youngest sibling Timmy (Chris Brochu). Also in their circle are Alana’s father and family friend Holt (Kevin Sorbo) and Sarah (Carrie Underwood), the leader of Bethany’s Christian youth group and a mentor.

The shocking shark attack comes on Halloween morning during a typical ocean outing when a 14-foot monster takes off Bethany’s left arm. The world changes radically for her and those close to her.

Miraculously, Bethany recovers and, helped by a good attitude, begins a challenging rehabilitation. Her faith helps her adjust, but it’s her youth group-sponsored trip to tsunami-torn Phuket, Thailand as a rescue worker that changes her life for the better as she learns the joys of helping people in need.

Back home, Bethany has a new determination to get back on the surfboard and win, in spite of her seemingly insurmountable handicap. With constant training and cheering on from her dad, she is soon facing off against her fiercest rival, Malia (Sonya Balmores Chung), as she takes her astonishing one-armed surfing technique to the limit in a big competition. Whether or not she wins is beside the point and won’t be revealed here. There’s even potential triumph on the romantic front with friend Byron (Jeremy Sumpter).

Great performances all around and eye-popping visuals and special effects help us get past what could have been the literal and metaphorical gooey aspects of the story. Suggesting the film hews a little too strongly to its core intentions, a few plot points go unexplored. Why, for instance, after the shark attack close to shore, do no characters betray even the slightest apprehension that maybe there are more sharks lurking? Also, in an overwhelmingly blond cast of principals and extras, why the cliché of the dark and exotic “heavy,” embodied by archrival surfer Malia?

Yes, Soul Surfer is upfront about its Christian mission and message, but it never overwhelms. The occasional scenes of communal praying and dollops of sermonizing dialogue from parents and even the light floating of “Jesus” and the Bible should not put off non-believers. With the terrific surfing visuals, gorgeous settings and lively pacing, there are many non-sectarian pleasures to enjoy here. In fact, the only converts the film will likely win are non-surfers or the vacation-bound considering Paris rather than Hawaii.

Special effects by Hollywood-based Engine Room make Robb's arm look convincingly severed, even in her surfing scenes. If Bethany’s character suggests that a person can get through something as horrendous as a limb amputation, Engine Room’s magic convinces that, with the right skill and technology, anything can be made to look real on the big screen. More than 500 shots were required to create the illusion that Robb was a real amputee and 90% of these were done in 2D by using a prosthetic in combination with compositing techniques. Amazing stuff and, along with that spectacular surfing footage, worth the price of admission.