Review: Soul Surfer (2011)

Director: Sean McNamara

**

Bethany Hamilton was just 13 years old when her arm was bitten off in a shark attack off the coast of her native Hawaii in 2003. An aspiring professional surfer, she learned to overcome this newly-acquired disability to work her way back to the standards of living and surfing she’d achieved pre-shark. Soul Surfer, the film adaptation of Hamilton’s book, appreciates Bethany’s courage but also reduces it to a God-bothering, stomach-turning pile of family-friendly tweeness. Jaws with false teeth, if you will.

Selling it as a shark attack film is something of a misnomer since we only see the shark for all of five seconds onscreen. One second sees a ridiculous CG shark chomp young Bethany’s (AnnaSophia Robb) arm off whilst she paddles on her surfboard. The other four seconds see the shark hanging dead from a winch after being caught. The dead eyes of the shark boast more sincerity than the rest of the film, which is ironic since it’s trying to stick closely to Bethany’s own experience. The opening half-hour sets the none-more-blissful scene. Hawaii: the seas are a crisp blue, the beaches are golden and inviting and everyone is attractive, tanned and frequently sporting swimwear. This idyll is inhabited by Bethany, her brothers (Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu) and her parents. Bethany’s parents are played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, both effectively claiming the market for the kind of maudlin sentimental rubbish they’ve specialized in of late. The Hamilton family are an impossible ideal: always smiling, supporting one another and churchgoing. There’s nothing wrong with a churchgoing family, and the real Bethany said her faith played a big part in her healing process, but that’s no excuse for the preachiness of Soul Surfer. As we watch the now one-armed Bethany (the arm is CG’d out, sometimes rather obviously) struggle with getting back on the board and everyday tasks, the film takes every possible opportunity to paint her as a martyr to her affliction. As soon as we hear of the big surfing competition and are introduced to the boo-hiss rival (Sonya Balmores), you’ll be too patronized and smothered in sentimentality.

Most of the cast are laboured with uninteresting roles (you know your film is in trouble when you waste the mighty Craig T. Nelson!), but Robb delivers a solid performance as Bethany, showing enough moxie to keep her story believeable. Meanwhile, the film could serve as a Hawaii travelogue if you could chop out the story, with beautiful beaches and clear blue ocean everywhere. However, these are the few positives in this over-earnest little tale. When Bethany goes on a missionary trip with her church youth group to Thailand to help with the then-recent tsunami relief effort, stomachs will flip either with the sickly sentimentality of it all or the reduction of this almighty disaster to stock platitudes. Director Sean McNamara also directed 3 Ninjas: High Noon At Mega Mountain; Soul Surfer couldn’t be but an improvement on that, but not by much. If you think you can sail through this overly-eager mess, you’re gonna need a bigger boat.

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