Soul Surfer hits pretty much all the standard sports movie clichés – but it has the benefit of a superb cast, an unusual subject sport and a knack for mostly avoiding becoming ham-fisted in its treatment of faith.
The story of Bethany Hamilton [AnnaSophia Robb] is well known to far more than the usual blend of overcoming tragedy and the power of faith. At just thirteen, Hamilton was a top-flight competitive surfer who was being courted by sponsors to turn pro when she was attacked by tiger shark and lost her left arm just below the shoulder. Through a combination of quick action by her friend Alana Blanchard [Lorraine Nicholson] and her father [Kevin Sorbo], emergency surgery [taking her father’s place in the OR], determination and faith, Hamilton not only survived but eventually went on to win the NSSA National Championships.
The film, written by a host of people including director Shawn McNamara [Bring It On: Fight to the Finish], establishes the Christian faith of the Hamilton family – father Tom [Dennis Quaid], mother Cheri [Helen Hunt], brothers Noah [Ross Thomas] and Timmy [Chris Brochu] – as a part of their life, but not to the exclusion of all else. It also features some amazing surfing footage – Hawaii and its surf are practically characters in the film.
McNamara eases into the story with a couple of surfing sequences wrapped around a church service that is as relaxed and unassuming as the surfer lifestyle. By the time we get to the shark attack, we have a good idea of who the Hamiltons – and their friends – are. It’s at this point, when Hamilton’s fight to get back out on the water and surf at a competitive level again, that film kicks into high gear.
Because we’ve gotten to know Hamilton and her family, we can accept the montage of Hamilton’s efforts to regain her competitive edge as something more than a mere sports movie cliché. During the second two acts of Soul Surfer, Robb, who has given us a believable, relatable character in Bethany Hamilton, really takes over the movie – in a good way. To say that we ache and flail and fight alongside her is not hyperbole. Robb’s performance is that good.
If you’ve seen photos of the real Bethany – especially those with her and Robb together [pictured above] – it’s hard to believe that the tiny Robb could effectively play the much taller, more muscular [but no less beautiful] woman, but she does. Onscreen, she’s quite a presence.
Of course, if all the film had was Robb’s performance, it would be just another sports movie. Fortunately, Quaid, Hunt, Nicholson, Sorbo [especially good as Alana’s father] and Craig T. Nelson [family friend and doctor], among others, give their supporting characters a real feeling of depth.
Carrie Underwood is also more than adequate as a Christian fellowship leader who helps Hamilton focus on what’s most important in life – and plays a part in her missionary aid sojourn to Thailand that helps her resolve her feelings about surfing, while helping survivors of a tsunami. It’s an experience that further delineates Hamilton’s faith – but it’s not so in your face as to be uncomfortable. If this was a purely fictional movie, the main character’s faith could as easily be Islam or Buddhism and it would have the same kind of power if everything else was equal.
Sure, all the typical sports movie beats are here – from the tragedy to ‘the big game’ [or in this case, an NSSA National Championships – but the truth of the story surmounts those clichés – as does the cast. They elevate Soul Surfer above most sports/comeback movies.
Final Grade: B