Directed by Sean McNamara. Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Lorraine Nicholson, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Jeremy Sumpter, Ross Thomas, Sonya Balmores, Chris Brochu, Craig T. Nelson. (2011, PG, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 8, 2011
Based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm to a shark at the age of 13 before going on to become one of surfing's all-time legends, Soul Surfer is faith-based filmmaking at its blandest. Which isn't to imply that what Hamilton (played here by Race to Witch Mountain's Robb) experienced – her life-changing ordeal, genuinely inspirational recovery, and eventual triumph against the odds – was a dull affair. It was anything but dull. However, as directed by That's So Raven's McNamara, the Hamilton family's beach-based, home-schooled, surf-infused lifestyle comes across as a particularly unspecial "Very Special Episode" of a television series that never made it past the pilot stage. There's nothing overtly disastrous about Soul Surfer, and its Christian worldview is, if anything, too timidly touched upon. The obvious metaphors that might be drawn from Hamilton's story – the tiger shark as a random diabolic entity, the ecstatic bliss of surfing as an analogy to Christ's walking on the Sea of Galilee – are nowhere to be found. And although the Hamiltons found refuge and strength in their deeply spiritual brand of Christianity, the most intriguing faith-based questions (i.e., "How could a loving God allow a shark to bite off the arm of a devout, 13-year-old girl?") are only lightly touched upon, which leaves the main story swimming in the narrative eddies. To be fair, Quaid and Hunt as Bethany's parents are completely natural in their roles; Quaid, particularly, looks as though he just wandered in from the beach. Director of photography John R. Leonetti, late of Piranha, does a terrific job capturing the lush, primal vitality of the Hawaiian islands, making them seem, intentionally, like the Edenic paradise they represented to the Hamilton family. But apart from the loveliness of their surroundings and the contrasting unloveliness of the shark attack and its aftermath, Soul Surfer could play just as well without its multiple sequences of beachfront churchgoing. Faith in the divine unknowable is at the heart of Bethany Hamilton's miraculous life, but it feels like it might have been an afterthought in the minds of Soul Surfer's seven screenwriters and 21 producers.