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'Soul Surfer' Lacks Real Soul

You'd think a movie about a teen triumphing over adversity, surfing and sharks would have more bite.

An aspiring professional surfer at the time, Bethany Hamilton was just 15 years old when a 13-foot tiger shark took her left arm off the shores of Kauai on Halloween morning in 2005 .  She was in the water and back on her board less than a month later.  “Soul Surfer,” starring AnnSophia Robb as Hamilton with Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents, isn’t just a shark attack survivor story. It’s a coming-of-age in paradise whilst putting First World problems in perspective story. There are also a ton of blonde, tanned people milling about talking about Jesus a lot.  

Aimed at 'tweens and teens, “Soul Surfer” is a watered-down, family-friendly film, from the director of “The Even Stevens Movie” and a “Bring it On” sequel, which accurately portrays Hamilton’s experience. The family was involved in the production and many scenes are basically reshoots of home movies (and are also seen in the short film “Heart of a Soul Surfer” from 2009).  Unfortunately, just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it’s all that interesting to watch… unbelievable as that may seem. It’s about a shark attack for goodness sake. But from the guileless sermons that merely skim the surface of trauma recovery to zero character development, the film is a victim of its own heavy-handed message.

“Soul Surfer” is rife with mediocre acting out of a mediocre script. It’s a real shame Hamilton’s story was so sanitized with cookie-cutter casting, bad writing and narrow world view. From her interviews near the time of the attack, Hamilton appeared to be a driven teen with braces and freckles, proud to convey her love for her family and her religion and happy to serve as an example for strength and faith in the face of adversity. Hollywood’s version of Hamilton is a perky, capable though quite bland actress who was Hamilton’s personal choice. But Robb lacks that spark and gawky charm of the real Hamilton at that time. Robb as Hamilton also lacks any discernible facial characteristics that would set her apart from every other blond teenager in this movie.

The surfing is decent. Hamilton did some of the surfing herself and it was awesome to see so many female surfers tearing it up. These scenes are handled well and the shark attack itself is filmed beautifully. The muted sound and heroics of the people around Bethany who save her life make for a surprisingly compelling scene. It helps that one of these people is Hercules. Well, it’s actually just Kevin Sorbo playing the dad of her surfing buddy – but close enough. The sense of community is also well developed – everyone knows everyone on this little island and the way in which her friends and neighbors honor her homecoming is probably the most affecting bit of cheese in the whole movie.

The characters that surround Bethany aren’t fleshed out, especially her family. The only thing we know about this family is that they surf, eat healthy, are really happy and go to church. A lot. Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid pretty much phone it in. Tanned and toned, Hunt and Quaid are there to elevate this ABC Family Channel of a movie into something more legitimate. Good for them. At least they got to spend a good amount of time in Hawaii for the shoot and hone their surfing skills. It doesn’t even appear that their characters have jobs in addition to supporting their beautiful children and eating fresh fruit

Faith is a big part of the Hamilton’s story and here it’s trivialized by poor acting and a sometimes laughable script. We get it, they’re down with J.C. and that’s totally cool. But the way in which Bible verses are used to try and answer Bethany’s big questions about why this horrible thing happened to her seems especially cruel and uncaring.

Carrie Underwood ("American Idol" winner, 2005), who plays Bethany’s youth pastor, should not be allowed in movies. In a tearful scene where Robb questions her faith, any dramatic momentum is lost as soon as Underwood opens her mouth. Between the bad dialogue and wooden delivery, it’s cringe-worthy. Underwood’s character also lays on the guilt big time when it comes to Bethany putting her surfing before her volunteer work. This smugness and self-righteousness ends up tainting the moment when Bethany finally finds reconciliation with her disability during a poignant moment helping the tsunami victims of Phuket.

In an oddly placed scene, Bethany’s dad receives a phone call one night and then immediately appears outside where a very large dead shark (mostly out of frame) has been gruesomely strung up by its tail, it’s mouth bloody and distorted from the weight of its organs. Dad shoves Bethany’s bitten surf board inside the dead animal’s mouth. “It’s a perfect match, dude,” is uttered from someone in the crowd.

Not only does this scene depict a supremely unscientific determination of the perp, it was the only time I felt true sadness at any point during the movie. What’s the point of blaming and then killing a shark? An opportunity to call for conservation and understanding was lost. Instead the Hollywood evil shark myth machine keeps on going.

“Soul Surfer” makes for an adequate inspirational tome that attempts to reconcile Christian doctrine with post-traumatic stress disorder, I guess. Mixing regular teen drama with a shark attack and search for one’s special purpose should be engaging, but the whole effort is too processed and sanitized.  A must skip for those outside the Disney Channel demographic, this movie (forgive me for writing this) has no bite.

"Soul Surfer" is now playing at:


750 Montgomery Glen Dr., Lansdale.

12:15, 2:45, 5:10, 7:35, 10

Regal Warrington Crossing 22
140 Easton Road, Warrington.

1:50, 4:50, 7:45, 10:15

For more of Megan Carr’s movie reviews and media musings, visit her website at therestiscreamcheese.com.

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