Andy Bockelman: ‘Soul Surfer’ coasts along the wave of feel-good stories
2 out of 4 stars
Starring: AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt and Carrie Underwood.
The list of athletes overcoming adversity is an ever-lengthening one with varying results.
While the “never say die” young sportsman of “Soul Surfer” is about on par with the likes of Roy Campanella and Lance Armstrong, she definitely looks better in a bikini.
Teenager Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) couldn’t ask for a better place to live than the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a place where she can fully appreciate the majesty of God. And, as wonderful as life is on land with her parents (Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt) and brothers (Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu), her real home is in the ocean, becoming a more and more formidable presence in the world of competitive surfing, a sport that consumes most of her time and passion.
When Bethany is attacked and almost killed by a tiger shark while out in the water, her first thought is that she’s just happy to be alive, even if the encounter results in losing her left arm. But, getting back on her board proves to be much more difficult than she expected, as is almost everything in her daily life.
As surfing becomes an ordeal rather than a joy, the young athlete starts to question why God would allow something so terrible to happen to her.
But, while her disability makes her favorite thing in the world harder than ever, she soon comes to realize that her loss of limb may give her more insight into His plan than she could have hoped for.
Robb’s combination of cheerful determination and occasional “woe is me” moments ring true in her portrayal of real-life Hamilton, for whom the well-publicized 2003 shark attack was only a minor bump in the road in becoming a professional surfer. Having parents who raised her on the water probably didn’t hurt either, with Quaid and Hunt fine as Bethany’s parents, Tom and Cheri, skilled boarders in their own right, who refuse to let their daughter give up.
In her film debut, “American Idol” winner Carrie Underwood is surprisingly well-utilized as Bethany’s youth minister, supportive of her charge’s resolve to start surfing again while still encouraging her to consider other ways to explore her faith, best expressed in a sobering scene as the two of them participate in a mission trip to help disaster-stricken folks in Thailand.
Few movies today are comfortable enough to have overtly Christian content while still creating a story that is accessible to everyone, and this is one of the film’s strong points, along with dazzling camera footage of the Aloha State and some impressive green screen imagery that digitally renders Robb’s healthy arm into a stump.
By the way, in case you’re asking why Hamilton wouldn’t just use a prosthetic, the answer is that lugging around a fake arm makes her surfing technique too awkward.
All the pieces are in place here for an inspirational tale of beating the odds, but the conflict is the heavy-handedness with which Hamilton’s story is approached. We almost drown in a sea of waterlogged dialogue that feels like it came straight out of “Screenwriting 101.”
Does anybody really believe that Bethany’s final words seconds before having her arm ripped off was an exclamation of how lucky she is?
Yes, we get that it’s an incredible story about an incredible girl, but the message is laid on so thick that it detracts from the natural course of events and makes a true account seem fictitious.
For that matter, Bethany is not given as much depth as she deserves, and though Robb pulls off her depiction nonetheless, the teen’s crisis of faith is handled shakily.
Coming on the heels of last year’s “127 Hours” and “The King’s Speech,” “Soul Surfer” doesn’t achieve the same level of poignancy in its rendering of a dynamic real-life figure fighting an overwhelming and personal battle.
Still, even though the story elements wipe out at the first crest, the leads’ acting lets us shoot the tube along with Hamilton before being overtaken by the bigger waves.
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