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In 2002, there was a film based around the little-explored world of women’s competitive surfing called Blue Crush. Though it didn’t make huge waves at the box office, the film was praised for the capturing the beauty of its Hawaiian locations and the excitement given to its surfing scenes.  In Soul Surfer, we are lucky to once again have the waters of Hawaii as our backdrop for a tale about another female surfer whose story is all too real and in every way amazing.

The ocean is a part of Bethany Hamilton’s life as much as food or breathing.  The Hawaiian girl is as comfortable in the water as on dry land, so taking part in the official state sport is no big surprise.  Bethany is a very good surfer, so much so she is ready to compete for the national Championships.  Supported by her loving family and friends, every spare minute of sunlight (- and a little forbidden moonlight) is spent on her board training for the championship, when the unthinkable occurs.  In a lightning second, Bethany’s life changes forever as a very harsh reminder that the ocean is as wild and unpredictable as any uncharted, ever-changing world and is home to deadly creatures that will eat you.  Bethany survives a shark attack by the merest thread, but it appears her dream of a surfing championship is gone forever.  It is the Bethany’s incredible recovery and comeback to the surfing world that is the basis for Soul Surfer.

It is very hard to make Hawaii look bad on film and Soul Surfer further proves that; the beautiful ocean vistas and tropical surroundings easily lull the viewer into the tranquility of the island, which makes the startling moment when we realise that those glorious waters aren’t a carefree playground all the more impactful.  Knowing Hamilton’s story beforehand does keep the audience fairly tensed waiting for the big moment,  but the surf training scenes are so wonderfully photographed and there is such an ease in the characters’ interactions that while the attack is tastefully handled, it is nonetheless effectively quick and shocking.  The cinematography of Soul Surfer also excels in giving viewers a great insight into the actual physicality of surfing; the real strength, agility, balance and coordination one must employ to be a championship surfer.  There’s far more to the sport than merely staying upright on a board in the water, which makes Bethany’s decision to return to the waves seem that much more impossible.  Once she has committed and her supporters find a way to compensate for the loss of her arm, the triumph isn’t whether or not Bethany will win the championship, but the fact that she’s out on the water at all.  We’re given a unique insight to the Hamilton family; they are a close-knit, happy bunch that center their lives around their Christian beliefs, attending church together weekly.  When Bethany is at her lowest after the attack and it seems her dream has escaped her, it is a missionary trip to Thailand after a devastating tsunami that gives her a new perspective and gets her back into the ocean once more. Soul Surfer is surprising in its inclusion of Bethany’s Christian beliefs, as anything faith-based seems to send Hollywood screaming for the hills, but it was a necessary and refreshing component to her story.  Because of her faith, Bethany’s deepest moments of anguish stem not just from the shark attack but from her doubt and despair that God has abandoned her.  Why would a Lord she’s worshipped faithfully let this happen?  Her motivation to help others as part of the mission brings Bethany back around to where she can overcome her fears and hopelessness.

AnnaSophia Robb plays Bethany with a sweetness and clear-eyed determination that never feels false or contrived, as evidenced best when Bethany is often the strongest person in the room when it comes to coping with her amputation.  Dennis Quaid is not only Bethany’s loving dad, but her biggest fan and his pride in her shows itself in often comic ways.  Helen Hunt is Bethany’s supportive but concerned mother, serving as a solid ground under her wounded child’s feet.  It’s a uncommon functional family portrait, but a welcome one.  There is a bit of forgivable schmaltz especially toward the end of the film that makes it read like a Afterschool Special, but the story is so winning and audiences will be so on Bethany’s side, it won’t take away much.  But while we’re addressing the film’s minuses, I can’t write this review without noting that in her film debut as the youth leader of Bethany’s church, singer Carrie Underwood sure wears an awful lot of very professionally-applied makeup for a missionary.  She’s one set of false eyelashes away from Tammy Faye Bakker.  Even so, those cosmetological considerations didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the movie.

Soul Surfer is a rare film these days, truly heartwarming and inspirational.  The performances are wonderful and true and the movie itself is exciting and lovely to look at.  It's a perfect family film.



~ The Lady Miz Diva

April 8th, 2011




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