REVIEW: Sturdy Soul Surfer Transcends Inspirational-Drama Clichés
Soul Surfer is based on a true story, that of pro surfer Bethany Hamilton who, as a young teenager, lost her arm to a hungry, aggressive shark. So you'd think that the movie's director, Sean McNamara, would move in for the kill, dramatically speaking, in the big shark-attack scene, with lots of screaming, chaos and shaky-cam stuff. Not by a long shot. Soul Surfer is the kind of sturdy, satisfying family drama that doesn't get made very often anymore. But even beyond that, at crucial moments it shows there's actually a brain behind the camera. If only more pictures -- made on any budget -- could be that way.
AnnaSophia Robb plays Bethany, the daughter of two lifelong surf nuts (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) who have set themselves and their family up in Kauai, the better to catch those gnarly waves. Bethany and her best friend, Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson), have practically grown up at the beach: Bethany's mom thinks she might actually be a mermaid. They surf every day, and so one morning, as they drift idly on their boards during a break -- talking, incidentally, about how lucky they are to be able to surf every day -- it appears to be business as usual.
A quick underwater shot suggests a confusion of fins -- which are attached to the board and which to the shark? There's a small splash in the water, and Bethany's face turns ashen. Alana realizes what's happened and calls for help. Thus ends one of the most understated shark-attack sequences, ever; it's almost Bressonian, except it's not boring.
And maybe that's how it was, or how it seemed, in real life. Soul Surfer is based on Bethany Hamilton's memoir of the same name, and the movie tells the story of how Bethany recovered from the incident, psychologically, physically and spiritually, and went on -- with the support of family and friends -- to fulfill her dream of becoming a pro surfer. God also figures heavily in the narrative: An early scene in Soul Surfer shows the Hamiltons worshiping together at a folky outdoor church service.
The Christian message might be trumpeted a little too loud and clear for some. And it doesn't help that country singer Carrie Underwood, not particularly skilled as an actress (at least not yet), shows up as a robotic youth minister. Then again, these aren't rabid Evangelicals we're talking about -- they're essentially hippie-Christians, closely attuned to nature, so it's easy to see where they're coming from. And while Soul Surfer doesn't quite rise above the level of standard triumph-over-adversity fable, it at least has a sense of honor. McNamara -- whose credits include numerous movies for kids and young adults, like Bratz and the Hilary Duff vehicle Raise Your Voice -- doesn't jerk the audience around in the most obvious way. His respect for his viewers, and for the story he's telling, elevates the movie above ho-hum conventionality.
All of the lead actors are relaxed and likable, particularly Robb (Bridge to Terabithia, Sleepwalking), who also has enough grit enough to keep her character from veering into sticky-sweet inspirational territory. Actually, Soul Surfer does a pretty good job of avoiding that pitfall altogether: As McNamara presents it, Hamilton's drive to return to the sport she loves (not to mention her determination to re-learn how to perform simple, everyday tasks) is both believable and admirable.
But best of all, the movie is beautifully shot, by John R. Leonetti. Leonetti makes the action almost effervescent -- it's freeing to watch these young women travel atop huge rolling waves as if they were no big deal. The film's visuals borrow a page or two from Dana Brown's marvelous 2003 documentary Step into Liquid, about the lives of people who have dedicated their lives to surfing -- people who may seem a little odd until the camera takes us right inside the curl, and we non-surfer types instantly get a sense of what all the fuss is about. Soul Surfer captures the same sense of exhilaration and exaltation. If God is anywhere, he's right inside the pipeline.