The real story of surfer Bethany Hamilton is so remarkable that it makes the film version seem embroidered by Hollywood’s heavy hand, even though it’s not.
At 13, Bethany was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing with friends off Kauai’s North Shore. Her arm was severed, and, though she lost 60 percent of her blood, she survived. Even more surprising, she never lost her drive to compete or her irrepressible spirit: A month after the attack, she was back in the water, training for her goal of becoming a professional surfer. A little more than a year later, she won her first national title. Two years after that, she turned pro.
“Soul Surfer” is a feel-good dramatization of Bethany’s story, and while it may not be perfect in moviemaking terms, everyone comes away from it feeling hopeful and more than a little of ashamed of their comparatively petty complaints. It’s a good, solid family film, too; if there ever was a better movie to pass along a message about perseverance, courage and faith and also highlight the sheer glory of riding a wave, I can’t imagine it. (Perhaps unintentionally, the movie also does some nice pro-bono visual work on behalf of the Hawaii tourism board.)
Such an inspirational story runs the risk of making its heroine into something of a saint, but as played by AnnaSophia Robb (“Bridge to Terabithia”), Bethany seems to be a normal kid. Born into a family of surfers, she goes to church and has a close relationship with her youth counselor (singer Carrie Underwood) but sneaks out with her best friend to a party late at night. She has a jokey, one-of-the-boys relationship with her brothers and dad (Dennis Quaid) but isn’t above trying to weasel out of studying with her home-schooling mom (Helen Hunt). Quaid and Hunt surf a little in the movie; Robb surfs a lot, and the competitive scenes of girls riding waves is as much fun as anything you saw in “Blue Crush.”
Director Sean McNamara and his team of writers wisely underplay the shark attack; in the compelling immediate aftermath, Bethany bobs on her board in shock, and a family friend (Kevin Sorbo) grimly sets about the crucial task of getting her out of the water before she bleeds to death. The effects that show Robb minus an arm are realistic, and nothing quite displays the measure of Bethany’s mettle as her steely reaction to her first good look at her stump.
Sure, peppered as it is with hokey lines (“Let’s let the surfing do the talking!”), the dialogue isn’t terribly compelling, and Underwood’s presence may seem merely a device to pile on the Christian message. But the real Bethany, the closing credits show us, is religious and had a close relationship with her youth minister. She even traveled with a group to Thailand in the wake of the tsunami to help with relief efforts. The film’s portrait of a loving, quietly devout family will doubtless put off more cynical viewers, but even they would be hard-pressed to disdain such a recovery — and such a life.