MOVIE REVIEW: Soul Surfer
SOUL SURFER-- 4 STARS
Everyone loves a good sports comeback movie. Everyone loves a true story too. Put them together and you've got more than a promising start for a movie an audience can get behind and enjoy. Add a powerful story for women and goodhearted Christian overtones and you've got something equally unique and special for bigger crowd. You can try to call it formulaic and attempt to single out the expected cliches of being a comeback sports movie, but Soul Surfer is definitely something special and unique. It isn't a glam-girl drama pushing itself as Blue Crush 2.
Soul Surfer tells the true story of Bethany Hamilton, played by AnnaSophia Robb of Bridge to Terabithia, Race to Witch Mountain, and Because of Winn-Dixie. In 2003, Bethany was a budding 13-year old local amateur surf champion looking to get sponsored on a circuit at the next level. Raised by a family of surfers, including a pair of ultra-supportive parents (Dennis Quaid and Academy Award winner Helen Hunt), she's a good, God-fearing kid with her values in the right place. All that changes when she is attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark while training for her next big meet. In the blink of a eye, the tiger shark severs her left arm above the elbow.
Despite losing over 60% of her blood, quick action from her coach (Kevin Sorbo of old TV Hercules fame) and her focused composure to avoid shock saves her life. Bethany survives, but is forever changed and her tragic story gains national attention. Her determination to not let her new shortcomings beat her is strong, but her confidence and faith are broken from where they were before the accident. Soul Surfer follows this young girl's journey to understand why bad things happen to good people, what really matters in the world, and finding the will and reasons to still compete and not give up her livelihood.
Normally, I don't do this, but a first person point-of-view diatribe has to come out in this review and off of this reviewer's chest. After seeing Soul Surfer, which impressed me to no end, I went online to read a few reviews on it from high-end critics. As a writer/blogger, I do that with every movie I see for a few reasons, namely to clarify my thoughts, not sound repetitious to what they do, and to get a pulse of how other people feel about a movie. The snobbish stuff I read irritated and disappointed me.
I read how more than a few critics dismissed the themes they saw. They questioned how genuine the story and character was. They found her completely supportive parents unrealistic. They questioned how convenient and "preachy" it was that Bethany actually had such strong Christian faith. Many critics I read turned up their nose and just saw the formulas and cliches of a sports comeback movie. I can understand if you just don't like the movie cinematically, but are you really in a place to question someone's character? I ask just one thing in response. What if you're wrong?
They say there's no way that a 13-year old girl could have such determination, faith, values, and composure. What if she really did have maturity beyond her years? Go look up the real Bethany Hamilton or stay through the credits of Soul Surfer and tell yourself that again. What if, heaven forbid, the real Bethany Hamilton actually had a pair of parents that gave a damn about their kid unconditionally and chose to support her in what she wanted to do? Does the national divorce rate and trashy talk show television prevent a pair of real parents from existing? Come on!
What if she really lives her life through faith and strong Christian values? Is that so bad in the notoriously-atheist Hollywood? No, because the movie shows it as the values of her character, not an agenda to shove down your throat of how to live your life. They make Bethany who she is and define her. So what?
In some ways, I get where those critics are coming from. I too fact-check a history-based or true story-based movie after I see it to learn what is real and what is dramatized for cinematic purposes. I did the exact same thing last week after seeing the great Civil War classic Glory on the big screen and a day after Soul Surfer with Robert Redford's latest, The Conspirator. There's nothing wrong with that process, but the others are poking too many petty and false holes for a well-intentioned and inspirational true story like Soul Surfer. I'd much rather put a teenage girl in front of this movie than crap like Twilight, any teen show on the CW, or anything starring Lindsay Lohan.
AnnaSophia Robb simply shines. She is a natural, intelligent, and proper teenager herself, and she brings that to playing Bethany. She doesn't fake the character and doesn't overact like her peers Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin. Remember her name, folks. You're going to be seeing a lot more great work out of her.
The supporting cast is as good as advertised as well. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt are perfect complementary and strong-willed actors to play supporting parents. In her film debut, country megastar Carrie Underwood understates and succeeds playing a church youth leader who helps guide and influence Bethany. You would think her popularity and pipes would cause her to steal the show, but she doesn't overstep and adds to the respectful heart and soul that the movie possesses.
I'll give the big critics one caveat in that Soul Surfer follows the overplayed "adversity-to-growth-to-end-big-game" formula of a sports movie. Do you know why cliche framework is used so much? It's because it works and the real thing turns out that way. That structure is entertaining and means to sweep you up in the suspense, excitement, and success of our movie underdog. So what if you get swept up in that prescribed emotion? It doesn't make you a bad person. If anything, it shows you have a heart for a good story, unlike those snob critics I compared.
Soul Surfer has that stand-up-and-cheer hook a lot stronger and a lot earlier than a great many other sports comeback stories. Just seeing her get back on the surfboard is victory enough that the "big game" at the end is just closure and affirmation. For those not friendly to church ways, the values and messages are indeed present, but no Bibles are being beaten, so don't be scared. To this critic, Soul Surfer is better than the award-winning The Blindside and should not be missed.
LESSON #1: OVERCOMING ADVERSITY-- Dude, she lost an arm! You try it and go about your daily business for the rest of your life, let alone surf at a high level. Some of us can't function on a headache, a stubbed toe, or a friggin' papercut. This girl shows the rest of us up, big time.
LESSON #2: HAVING THE TRUST AND FAITH THAT THINGS CAN GET BETTER OR WORK OUT-- Bethany learns that her accident is not the end of the world, not her fault, and, in her faith, not God's plan for her. A secondary part to this would be answering the rhetorical question of why bad things happen to good people. How people come through those situations is a result of trust and, many times, faith. Both are outstanding and commendable qualities of our main character and her family.
LESSON #3: WHAT DOES ONE REALLY COMPETE FOR?-- Before her accident, Bethany was the best at what she did. Through her own will to set the bar high, she wouldn't accept anything less than that when she returned after her accident. However, at first, when she couldn't compete the same at that high level, she was immensely disappointed. Soon, humility replaced that disappointment. She learned that it was more important and more fulfilling to be there to surf rather than to be there to win. Her faith and her self-worth are affirmed by that too.