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Soul Surfer: Film Review

11:24 AM PDT 3/26/2011 by Kirk Honeycutt

The Bottom Line

An inspiring true-life story gets a less-than-inspired film dramatization.

AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt star in director Sean McNamara's idealized take on one-armed surfer Bethany Hamilton.

Sportswriters invariably call any last-minute heroics or unbelievable upset a “Hollywood ending,” yet in reality Hollywood usually does a poor job with sports stories based on real-life events. Such stories force filmmakers to drastically alter the filmmaking playbook, draining away all color or quirks of personality from characters based on living people and removing any complications that might distract viewers from the “inspirational” message they’re determined to convey.

Which is what happens in Soul Surfer, a true story of courage, determination and guts that deserves a more exciting approach. No doubt, the film will reach its target faith-based audience but a wider audience may elude the TriStar release. However, if the film’s real-life heroine, Bethany Hamilton, promotes the film with enough personal appearances, Soul Surfer may break through to general audiences.

Her story has certainly been told repeatedly, including an autobiography and an earlier short doc, Heart of a Soul Surfer, made by her sister-in-law. A lifelong surfer born to a family of Hawaiian surfers, she lost her left arm in a 2003 shark attack when she was 13. She returned to surfing a mere month after her harrowing ordeal and continues to compete in contests today, having perfected a one-armed surfing technique.

Few stories can be more inspiring but this one apparently didn’t inspire the filmmakers to think outside the box. Director Sean McNamara and no less than seven credited writers, in additional to the three that co-authored Hamilton’s book, recite the basic facts in dramatic form but give a viewer little sense of who these people -- Bethany, her family and friends -- are or what makes them tick.

The film’s main actors do fill in some of the gaps, especially young AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany and Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents. Robb goes full-bore in her surfing scenes -- she is actually a beginner -- as well as the dramatic ones, giving the heroine the determination of youth broken only a couple of times by doubts or self-pity. Having been virtually born to surf, she had no real way to give it up. It goes against her entire upbringing.

With little makeup, Quaid and Hunt play people who spend as many hours as possible in the sun: Their leathery, lean skin and unadorned faces speak to a deep love for the outdoors and especially the ocean. Taken together this trio, along with Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu who play Bethany’s older brothers, present a family of pro surfers whose sport has given them a competitive spirit and a commitment to excellence that see them through this terrifying ordeal.

But the filmmakers treat them with kid gloves. Put it this way, you would never create such nearly perfect, idealized characters for any fictional story. You’d bore an audience to tears.

The 10-minute episode concerning the shark attack and rush to a nearby hospital is the best sustained sequence in the film. Additionally, all the water work involving cameras mounted on surfboards and jet skis is superb as is the surfing, often performed by doubles that include Bethany herself.

On land though, the film suffers from the Hollywood-itis those sportswriter so frequently invoke. A fictional villain is created in a rival surfer, played by a perennially scowling Sonya Balmores, who ridicules and cheats Bethany at every opportunity. The film uses a 2004 humanitarian aid trip to Thailand by Bethany following the devastating tsunami to give its heroine a sentimental shot in the arm to further motivate her to return to competitive surfing.

The film curiously characterizes the media that descends on the Hamilton house as a force of terror that drives Bethany and her family to cover. This is an all too common, even clichéd movie portrayal of reporters, but in this instance more than a little mendacious given the countless interviews the young woman has given in the weeks following the attack up until today.

Singer Carrie Underwood makes her film debut in a superfluous role as Bethany’s church young group leader while Kevin Sorbo and Lorraine Nicholson play the father and daughter who no doubt saved her life by their quick thinking and reactions in the moments following the attack.

As with all the roles throughout the movie, they perform a specific function within the known storyline but are thinly characterized.

Composer Marco Beltrami should be singled out for a score that brilliantly utilizes old Hawaiian music and songs.