The mere title Soul Surfer should signal that this film will have some kind of religious undertones, and I am perplexed as to how this could trouble anyone. After all, the subject of Soul Surfer, Bethany Hamilton, has her faith at the center of her extraordinary story, and any attempt to either downplay or ignore it altogether would be disingenuous. The film sets out to tell her story, and it does it well, so the idea that people may become irritated with how Christianity is at the heart of the film I believe would find Christianity itself to be a big problem. That, however, is not being able to see the forest for the trees, for Soul Surfer is a strong story about how a person, guided by faith and determination, can overcome truly shocking and almost insurmountable odds.
Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) is a born surfer, with a great talent for riding the waves, not surprising given her parents Tom and Cheri (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) are themselves passionate surfers and they live in Hawai'i. Bethany has a pretty sweet life: riding the waves, going to Youth Group, riding the waves, getting a sponsorship with the strong possibility of going pro, riding the waves, spending time with her BFF Alana (Lorraine Nicholson), riding the waves...and did we mention, she likes riding the waves?
All things are going well for Bethany, until she takes yet another ride on the waves accompanied by her BFF and her father Holt (Kevin Sorbo). It's at this point when Bethany is attacked by a shark as she floats on her board. Her left arm is bitten off and there is massive loss of blood. Rushed to the hospital (curiously, her father is having knee surgery at the precise moment Bethany suffers her attack and is taken to the same hospital where the same doctor is rushed to attend her), she is now an amputee. With that, her hopes and dreams of being a professional surfer appear over.
It's a time of frustration and spiritual crisis for Bethany, but taking the words of her Youth Director Sarah (country star Carrie Underwood), Bethany attempts to live her life as best she can, feeling that even this is somehow part of the Lord's plan. The call of the sea is to strong for Bethany, and she now is determined to surf again, and she will accept no special privileges because of her condition. It takes going on a mission trip to tsunami-ravaged Thailand to have her see that she truly doesn't have it as bad as she thought, and with her true grit and the favor of the Lord, she competes, where she loses but wins.
Maybe it is true: if Soul Surfer weren't based on a true story, it might not be believed and seen as rather saccharine and faux-uplifting. However, it IS based on a true story, which makes it truly inspirational that despite a horrifying incident, Bethany will not be denied. This shouldn't shield it from some of the cliches the film embraces (such as having pop songs in montages of people surfing or voiceovers--which I'm wary of), but because this is Bethany Hamilton's story, we can take her spirit and courage at face value.
The performances by the leads were grounded in reality, never exploiting the scenario for big emotional moments. Robb as Bethany created a whole person: a typical teenager who has to accept something extremely difficult but who still has doubts and questions as to why she is going through this awful lifetime experience. She excelled when she had quiet moments of doubt and frustration, as as I've stated never was overly dramatic, keeping Soul Surfer from becoming overly depressing or falsely optimistic.
Quaid and Hunt worked well together (and showed that at 57 and 48 respectively they are both in incredible shape) as the parents who love their family and do their best to be supportive in extremely difficult circumstances. Sorbo too, in a smaller role as Alana's father and Hamilton family friend, does well, although his role is relatively minor to almost being negligible. Nicholson too had a small role, but did an effective job when putting her fears over seeing her friend.
If there are flaws to be found in Soul Surfer, the story manages to overcome them. I can't be too harsh with Underwood: it's clear she's not an actress, but we won't hold it against her since we know she's there for name recognition and perhaps to start a career in front of the cameras, following the leads of other country stars like Dwight Yoakum and Tim McGraw).
Having a total of four official screenwriters (director Sean McNamara, Michael Berk, and Deborah and Douglas Schwartz), and seven people receiving story credits (the first four, along with Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, and Brad Gann), in a surprise, doesn't make Soul Surfer lose focus entirely. However, I don't think it has to do with getting seven people together and finding a wealth of talent. Rather, it is because they were working from Bethany's memoir, they could not deviate far from her story.
Not that they didn't give it an effort to. You have a subplot about a hint of a possible romance between Bethany and her friend Keoki (Cody Gomes), and the cliched 'villain' of Soul Surfer, a fellow surfer with the appropriately wicked name of Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores Chung): a name that suggests she's one letter away from being a real...well, take a guess. Malina even wears a black swimsuit...now there's a subtle hint. Some of the moments (such as when the Hamiltons fight among themselves over how Bethany's dismemberment affects them) fall a little flat.
On the whole, however, Soul Surfer is a strong story about a strong woman, someone who has gone through a horrible situation and has not only gone on to success despite it but has inspired others in similar situations. Soul Surfer has Bethany saying near the end, "You have to lose what you most want to gain what you most need". She is an inspiration, and Soul Surfer is attempting to be inspirational. Bethany Hamilton succeeds; the film, a little less so.