Film review: Soul Surfer

Sometimes, we have to step back to gain perspective — perhaps especially when it’s most difficult to step back at all.  That’s a lesson we learn at the very beginning of the film Soul Surfer, before tragedy strikes young Bethany Hamilton, a promising amateur surfer who nearly lost her life at age 13 from a shark attack that took her left arm off at the shoulder.  Hamilton not only survived, but eventually learned to adapt so well that she fulfilled her dream of becoming a champion amateur surfer and successful professional as well.

The film emphasizes how Hamilton and her family relied on their Christian faith to struggle through the aftermath of the attack.  This is the film’s main draw, and AnnaSophia Robb gives an excellent and vulnerable performance that shows how deep that struggle became.  Unlike most films of this genre, Hamilton doesn’t suffer a single crisis of faith and then experience an epiphany; instead, she’s seen as perhaps being too determined to prevail at first, and disillusioned when she discovers she can’t compete, at least not the same way as she did before.  Hamilton briefly walks away from her dream, but through her volunteer service in tsunami-ravaged Thailand, is finally able to step back from her tragedy and gain some perspective — and a newfound drive to pursue her dream.

Like most surf films, the cinematography is breathtaking, and even non-surfers will appreciate the action scenes (Hamilton herself performs the surfing stunts).  It features a top-notch cast, including solid supporting performances from Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Hamilton’s parents, and another from Kevin Sorbo as the father of Hamilton’s lifelong best friend Alana Blanchard (another world-class surfer), whose quick action saved Hamilton’s life.  While the film has some standard Hollywood tropes, especially when it comes to the “big game” aspects of the movie, at least some of the presumed Hollywoodisms were actually true events.  As a bonus, there is a fair amount of footage of Hamilton herself at the end.  To find out more, read Hamilton’s web site, or her book.

It’s not without its flaws. The film is almost relentlessly optimistic; Robb’s Hamilton doesn’t seem to grieve much for her loss (which, of course, may have been true in real life), and after reading the timeline at Hamilton’s site, the film seems to have put the trip to Thailand out of sequence. Still, the film rings true for me, as it did for my wife, who also struggled with faith after losing her sight at 24. Quaid’s mainly understated performance as a father who feels compelled to “fix” his daughter’s life to the point of denial was especially poignant.

Soul Surfer has been in release in the US for a few weeks, but it’s definitely worth watching.  There aren’t too many Hollywood films which focus on faith, and this is both uplifting and entertaining.  Try to see it before it disappears entirely from the screen.  You’ll be tempted to do so to support the effort to make positive films about faith, but you’ll be glad you saw this film on its own merits.

Addendum: I also saw Thor this weekend, and enjoyed it more than I thought I might.  I’d recommend it to anyone not put off by the comic-book genre; this is one of the better entries in that field, perhaps because Kenneth Branagh helmed it. It’s a visual masterpiece, especially in 3-D.

Update: For those interested in my wife’s thoughts on faith and struggles, she has a weekly column at Patheos called Guided Sight.

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