Review: ‘Soul Surfer’ Is Tragedy Overcome With Sugar and Salt

By  · Published on April 12th, 2011

On the surface, the story of Bethany Hamilton is toweringly inspirational. The young surfer on the verge of going pro faced a personal loss so great that it should have destroyed her future career and water-soaked passion in one blow.

The fact that she fought back against it, got back on the board, and eventually triumphed is a testament to the human spirit (as well as, according to the film, a testament to faith and the power of a higher being).

It’s a compelling story, but as Soul Surfer proves, it’s not the best basis for a full-length feature film. It’s perfectly passable, but director Shawn McNamara has created a version of the story that focuses on filler and ties up all the drama far too easily.

Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) is a promising teenage surfer living a blissful life with her parents (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) and brothers (Jeremy Sumpter and Ross Thomas) and best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson). She surfs all day every day, hangs out in a hip outdoor church led by Sarah (Carrie Underwood) and gets sponsored by big-time surf company Rip Curl.

Then, on a carefree day, a shark attacks her, and she loses her left arm at the shoulder. Bethany has to face the traumatic physical change with the knowledge that she may not be able to compete again. In order to get back in the water, she’s got to gain some perspective and fight hard for what she loves.

The main problem with Soul Surfer is the main problem of any movie trying to show someone’s internal struggle for the entire second act. Bethany has to come to grips with what’s happened to her, and she does so by doing something major halfway around the world, but the film wastes so much time before getting her there that her big change happens almost with the click of the fingers. That’s not to say the moment doesn’t work well, because it does. It’s just a great moment in a sea of billowing nothing.

In fact, there are several scenes that work with incredible intensity. After the cheapest CGI shark of all time appears for less than a nanosecond, the action of getting Bethany safely to the hospital, complete with the crushing response of her parents (aided by the acting talent of Hunt and Quaid) is a section that’s gripping and scary. It also works because of how natural it is. Helen Hunt’s Cheri doesn’t even put the car in park at the hospital before jumping out to see her baby. Tell me a mother wouldn’t do just that in the same circumstance.

Sadly, a lot of the film just seems cheap – and that has nothing to do with production costs (except that damned shark, and, okay the missing arm). The opening is a perfect depiction of a simple life, and anyone who’s ever gone to a progressive church service can attest to the film getting all the notes right. Church is a big part of Bethany’s life, and it becomes the catalyst for her choices (practicing harder vs going to Mexico for a mission trip, giving up hope vs joining the church group in helping tsunami victims). Unfortunately, after the impact of the shark attack, the film loses all momentum to silly scene choices (including, especially, a moment where Randy Quaid mean-faces his way out to a crowd in the darkness to inspect the shark they caught to see if it’s The One). The story has essentially nothing to do before Bethany’s epiphany (and that challenge isn’t at all met by director Sean McNamara), so instead, the movie turns into filler scenes with people navel gazing on beautiful beaches. Even after Bethany realizes she can saddle back up and ride, the movie becomes the longest string of montages in film history – unable to relate anything unless its made up of smash cuts set to music to show how much time has passed and how Bethany has progressed.

No joke, there are no fewer than 4 montages in the movie.

It’s a structural problem. Not counting the brooding that happens post-attack, all of the obstacles here are presented and then jumped with a spoonful of sugar and no sweat. The worst offense is the reason the story exists. Despite the wallowing and inability to cut fruit, Bethany solves the problem of her missing motivation to surf one-armed within three scenes.

One of those scenes is a talk with her father about God which comes off sweetly (despite consisting entirely of overused platitudes), and asks the question of why God would so violently take this young girl’s arm and passion from her. Sadly, the movie doesn’t do deep enough humanistic work to really satisfy that ultimate question. Instead, it becomes a grotesque sort of theological itch that can’t be scratched. She was surfing before, she’s surfing now. Did she have to lose an arm to get there? Erm. Next question? The movie’s assertion that the larger plan was for her to be able to inspire millions of people is a great answer, but even that isn’t given enough time of day to seem all that important by the end. A scene with a bunch of fan mail? Check. Bethany speaking to a ton of interviewers at the end? Done deal. Millions reached. Checklist fulfilled.

If the movie would only focus on any of the things it presents as important, it would be one of the best of the year.

As far as the missing arm is concerned, it’s embarrassingly bad CGI about half of the time. It’s green-screened so obviously that sometimes another centimeter of her arm peaks out and then ducks back in. Plus, her arm is painted out with a straight line, making it a moving photoshop fail. Instead of overcoming the small budget in that area with innovation, McNamara and team punted, and the result is about as amateurish as it gets.

What’s compelling about the story (the attack and the action that makes her want to surf again) is told with expertise. The rest of it floats on the backs of better acting talent than the story deserves, raising it above made-for-TV-movie blandness. With a steadier writing hand (or fewer than a dozen credited writers) and a more talented director, this could have been a tight story about how tragedy can affect a person, a family, and a community, but as it stands, it’s an average film that’s so choppy that the last half hour has to cram in all those previously mentioned montages. The surfing shots are stellar, the acting is where it needs to be, but the story just isn’t told with any skill, and every obstacle seems to be overcome with a wink and a smile.

The Upside: Great acting from its veterans and newcomers that keeps it interesting throughout, beautifully-shot surfing scenes, an uplifting story emerging despite the director’s best attempts to quash it.

The Downside: Terrible CGI, a lack of focus, a meandering story, and an over all cheap feel

On the Side: Bethany Hamilton also has a producing credit on a short documentary titled Heart of a Soul Surfer.

Grade: C-

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.