Sporting faith at the movies: A review of Soul Surfer

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Whether it's a Christian film, a family film, or a sports film, Soul Surfer aims to inspire.

 

Bethany Hamilton’s story is an amazing one, and she is happy that the movie telling it, Soul Surfer, gets the two most important things in her life right: her faith and her sport. 

Hamilton was training for a regional surf competition in Hawaii in 2003 when a shark attacked her, taking her left arm and nearly killing her. Soul Surfer tells the story of how she got back into the water and started to compete again. 

A crossover Christian/mainstream film, the Hamilton family’s faith is an essential part of the story, and while the evangelical message is less than subtle, Hamilton’s story touches on many themes that will inspire viewers of all faiths or none, especially young athletes and girls looking for strong role models.
 
After a “home video” montage introducing the characters, the first scene shows 13-year-old Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) jumping off her surf board and throwing on a white sundress as she runs to her sea-side church—really just a tent on the beach—where everybody smiles and sings praise and worship songs. 

Those not used to a showy faith might be shocked, but director Sean McNamara, a Catholic, told religious press at a premiere that he first met the real Bethany in that exact church.  

The first 15-minutes of the movie, McNamara said, are intended to make the audience “fall in love with the Hamilton family,” but for these 15 minutes, the characters remain one-dimensional: perfect. Hawaii is paradise, it seems, with surfing, church, more surfing, fireworks, and families that don’t fight, even when children misbehave.

It’s only after the attack, when things start to fall apart, that the characters become more real and elicit sympathy. Bethany’s relationship with her parents, played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, allows the movie to explore internal struggles, especially when her parents fight over whether acceptance means giving up or if perseverance is denial of change. 

A touching scene between Bethany and her mom also touches on body image issues, while in another scene, her dad’s advice to pray and trust God is religious without being overly preachy. Still, the play of the sun shining through clouds as it sets lacks subtlety and borders on cheesy, as does the use of light throughout the movie. (McNamara admits the “going toward the light at the end of the tunnel” in the hospital scene is cliché, though he justified it because using the wave as the tunnel is unique.) 

Unfortunately, the rest of the relationships in the movie are less developed than that of those between Bethany and her parents. A fight between father and son seems unexpected, and there’s a tension between the family and the friend who saved her (Kevin Sorbo) that is left unexplored, resulting in a confusing reconciliation scene.

Surprising for a “Christian” movie, the character that suffers most from lack of development is youth minister Sarah Hill, played by Carrie Underwood in the singer's first attempt at acting. Both the script and Underwood’s performance makes the character, like the first 15 minutes of the film, one-dimensionally perfect. 

Still, through Hill, the movie develops a strong lesson that can be appreciated by Christians and non-Christians alike: that how you respond to life and its challenges depends on your perspective. In the most powerful scene in the movie, Bethany gains a new perspective of her own brokenness in responding to the brokenness of those who survived the tsunami in Thailand. (Bethany’s narration here and elsewhere seems unnecessary, as even the youngest audience members will understand the meaning of the scene.)

Like other “Christian” films, Soul Surfer can be critiqued as too perfect, and like other sports films, the happy ending is not surprising (though there is a twist). But the movie’s strength lies in staying true to Hamilton’s real life, from the Thailand trip to the competition results. Details might differ but the movie got the most important thing right: That Bethany Hamilton is an inspiration.