Review in a Hurry: While surfing off the coast of Hawaii, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton was attacked by a shark. She survived, but lost her left arm. Eventually, she became a surf champion and her real-life story became an inspiration for others across the globe. And she did it all with the help of her family and a strong spiritual belief.
While the real life Bethany has gone on talk shows stating her faith gave her the strength to succeed, it's that exact thing which threatens to sink an otherwise earnest and well-cast family picture that sports fine performances from AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt.
The Bigger Picture: At first glance, with a gorgeous Hawaiian setting placed in the early 2000s, it's easy to confuse the ads for Soul Surfer as Blue Crush 2: Attack! But this really isn't just another tale about young hotties and the beach.
The rush of energy from catching the perfect wave is in Bethany's blood, and Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) plays Bethany with fierce intensity.
Things start off well enough, establishing Bethany's strong ties to her family and community. After she makes it through the first round in a big surfing competition, her mother (Hunt) reminds her daughter she has already made a commitment to go with her fellow missionaries on a relief effort trip to Mexico. But Beth really wants to be in that surfing competition, so Mexico will have to wait.
Bad move. A few days later while practicing for the big event the shark strikes. This sequence, dealing with mom and dad in anguish and Beth in shock, is handled extremely well. Her life starts to unravel (she can't surf, she's become bitter, etc), so she pays a visit to her missionary mentor for answers. Why would God have done this to her? But this crucial scene falls flat. The mentor offers up empty platitudes that are utterly unconvincing.
It doesn't help that Bethany's mentor is played by American Idol winner Carrie Underwood. Underwood can be a fantastic singer (which she does a little here), but she is not an actress. Like Christina Aguilera (Burlesque), Underwood doesn't act, she performs. She never has any exchanges with her costars that feel genuine. Worse, we never understand why a smart girl like Bethany would believe anything coming out of her mouth.
It's strange that a film based on a person of actual faith can't seem to find a way to express it. Merely showing her father (Quaid) at Beth's bedside with a bible isn't really expressing anything more than being a prop in a scene.
From there, the story builds to the big surfing competition. Bethany has a true rival (Sonya Balmores) who refuses to be easy on her. As a formulaic sports story, it works just fine.
Although for a movie with so much surfing in it, the film seems disinterested in telling us any details of the sport. The surfing by and large looks great (aside from a few obvious CG makeovers to put Robb's face on the real Hamilton's body), but we never get much context as to why certain moves are important.
Director Sean McNamara should have delved deeper into Beth's outlook on her spirituality. Making a mainstream film about a person's faith is certainly no easy task, but with a story like Bethany's and a strong leading actress, this material shouldn't feel so forced.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Whether or not Bethany's connection to her God will connect with mainstream audiences is unclear, but it's certainly refreshing to see a film with no cardboard villains. She might have a competitor as far as surfing goes, but pretty much all the characters exude a warmth and mutual respect for one another that's lacking in most movies about adults, much less teens.