So there’s this movie about a professional surfer who overcomes a shark biting off her left arm with the power of her strong will and her faith. The trailers make it look like some piece of fluff that you’d see on Lifetime and the cast is that weirdly varied kind where the quality of actors is in such great variance that you can’t help but think something is askew. You head into this film thinking you’re going to get beaten around the head with sappy crap and come out feeling all sticky and gross from saccharine sweetness.
That’s exactly how I want into Soul Surfer. The strange thing? I didn’t come out sticky and gross at all.
As alluded to before, Soul Surfer is about a young surfer who is about to go pro when she loses her arm from a shark attack. You’ve probably heard the story because it was all over the news when it actually happened to Bethany Hamilton, played in the film by the up-and-coming AnnaSophia Robb. The movie focuses on her and her family as they struggle with the fact that her arm is gone and she still wants to surf. I can’t even explain to you how terribly wrong this movie could have gone and yet it didn’t. Almost every piece clicks and instead of becoming a clichéd tear-jerker it actually develops into an honest story with a bit of sports movie tossed in for fun.
To begin, Robb is actually quite impressive. Not only is her performance downright stirring at moments, but she executes Bethany Hamilton’s mix of toughness and bravado perfectly, only letting out the correct amount of emotion for what seems to be a very complex character. On top of this she’s performing the entire time with her arm either hidden or digitally removed. While the special effects for her missing limb are hit and miss her performance never is. Add to this a supporting cast including Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid who all perform admirably and you’ve got a movie that goes beyond the obvious and actually has characters.
Of course the performances aren’t all good and the film suffers for it. While the likes of Kevin Sorbo actually deliver on their parts the same can not be said for the absolutely horrendous performance of country singer and American Idol star Carrier Underwood. While many of my fellow critic’s reactions to her were not quite as vitriolic as mine, I wanted to punch her in the face almost every time she was on screen. The entire film she has a glassy “I’m in a movie” look that steals any credibility away from whatever scene she is in. Every time she talked it instantly pulled you from the film and made you realize you were watching a bunch of people acting. Maybe if she was a lesser character it would have been fine, but as the head of Bethany’s church group she not only plays a major role in guiding her, through faith, to a happier outcome, but she’s also in charge of delivering some of the film’s most meaningful lines. In a movie where delivering actual emotion is so important, especially when discussing faith, her lackluster performance almost destroys it.
That does, however, bring me to the film’s handling of faith, and in this case Christianity. One of my biggest fears was that since Bethany Hamilton is a deeply religious person, the movie would be more of a sermon than a story. However, Soul Surfer balances faith and story incredibly well. Bethany and her family’s beliefs never override her incredible story, but they are also an obvious backbone for how she grows up. More importantly the movie never makes the audience feel like it is being preached to in any direction, a trap that many films (both pro- and anti-religion) fall into.
It also helps that at its most basic Soul Surfer is actually a sports movie about a surfing competition. Nothing helps you get excited about a story than a championship competition at the end, right? It’s all here in Soul Surfer. You’ve got the setback, the coming together of a team (the family), the sports training montage and then the triumphant return to the sport. You’ve also got some great surfing scenes, and while it is a bit obvious that Robb’s head was digitally put onto someone else surfing at points, it doesn’t ruin how great some of the action is. Yes, Soul Surfer trudges over some pretty common ground for a sports movie, but thankfully the actual story behind it is interesting enough to keep you watching despite this fact.
Surprisingly, I came out of Soul Surfer without that sticky sweet feeling you get from too much schmaltz and only a strong desire to see AnnaSophia Robb in more moves and Carrie Underwood in far fewer. That’s not to say there aren’t parts of the movie that aren’t all about making you feel disgustingly good about the world, but they’re only enough to give the film that feel-good edge that all sports movies should have anyway. It’s not going to change your life or anything, but as far as “true story” sports films go, this one actually performs admirably.