Faith-based films often make do with microscopic budgets, no-name casts, and prayer-based marketing plans. Hollywood isn’t too keen on addressing religious crowds, even if 2004‘s The Passion of the Christ proved they’ll come out in droves when asked. That leaves religious films to scrape and claw for funding.
The spiritually aware Soul Surfer, the new film based on a teen’s survival from a shark attack, boasts all the perks a mainstream movie can offer. That means stars such as Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt play the teen’s parents, and the surfing sequences are vibrant enough to make couch potatoes reconsider their ways.
The film even uses fancy computer trickery to make the protagonist’s arm “disappear” post-attack.
Those perks can’t camouflage the film’s nagging flaws, such as stilted dialogue and hackneyed supporting players. That doesn’t diminish Soul Surfer’s narrative strength, however. It’s an inspirational film with an appeal that should cut right across demographics, from spiritual to secular.
Talented youngster Anna Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) stars as Bethany Hamilton, a surf-obsessed teen who rides the waves right alongside her tanned and toned parents (Quaid and Hunt). Bethany’s pro surfing career seems assured. She just secured a merchandising deal and has the full support of her family and friends.
That ends when a casual surfing adventure turns into a nightmare. A shark jumps up from under Bethany’s surfboard and snatches her left arm. It’s the sequence audience members have been dreading, and it’s just as harrowing as one imagines without feeling exploitative.
Bethany’s fellow surfers rush her to the nearest hospital, while all the while she gazes up at the sky, her face a ghastly shade of white. She survives, but getting back on her surfboard seems like a long shot.
The Hamiltons live for the beach, the waves, and Jesus Christ. Soul Surfer opens with the Hamiltons attending a church service, albeit one set on the beach. Faith is never too far out of the frame, but the film doesn’t bludgeon viewers with sermons. Instead, it’s the connective tissue between the Hamilton family and Bethany’s remarkable recovery.
“How can this be God’s plan for me?” Bethany asks Sarah (country superstar Carrie Underwood, cast as her church adviser).
Bethany can’t imagine a life without surfing, but simply standing atop her board without falling over won’t be enough. She still wants to compete with the best of the best. The simple act of slicing a tomato is suddenly a chore, though, reminding her of the stiff odds she faces.
The real story behind Soul Surfer is so remarkable, it’s almost impossible to destroy on screen. Robb, a standout child actor, is growing into an actor of consequence. She bullies past some clichéd speeches, a hokey nemesis, and uneven performances around her—Underwood appears to be a work in progress as an actor—to capture the real Bethany’s intractable spirit.
Having Robb provide sporadic narration proves a big mistake. Narration in general is often a poor excuse for quality storytelling, and hearing Bethany’s commentary adds little to our appreciation of her life story.
Hunt and Quaid portray a believable couple, a pair of aging surfers grappling with their daughter’s new limitations. Quaid’s adolescent smirk, which often detracts from his more serious performances, enhances his character’s Peter Pan qualities here.
Both Hunt and Quaid share a few warm moments with Robb, but the daddy/daughter bond is particularly powerful.
“Dad, please don’t cry. I’m gonna be okay,” Bethany tells her father shortly after the accident. And, for a while, Bethany’s near saintly reaction to the accident threatens to cast her as a modern-day saint. But this teen’s journey of acceptance is a rocky one, and it’s here where young Robb shines.
Bethany’s ebullient spirit wanes when she realizes how different life is with one arm. She’s stared at in the supermarket when she struggles to corral produce into her cart. And when a television program gives her an artificial arm in exchange for an interview, she sulks when she learns about the device’s limitations.
The film otherwise takes some aggressive swipes at the media’s prying ways, particularly when reporters storm the Hamiltons’ house to capture Bethany’s return from the hospital.
Soul Surfer may feel clunky at times, but it strikes an elegant, respectable balance between its faith-based roots and mainstream entertainment.
Bethany’s room features a poster for the ubiquitous surfing classic The Endless Summer as well as another, smaller picture with the words “Pray for Surf.” It’s those kinds of subtle cues that will impress religious audiences without alienating the agnostics.
Soul Surfer is hardly a 106-minute sermon, but there’s enough spirituality in the film to make it stand out from the pack.