Soul Surfer (2011, PG) is based on the autobiography of American surfing star Bethany Hamilton and centers on Bethany's struggle to rebuild her surfing career after a devastating shark attack left her with only one arm. Bethany is played by AnnaSophia Robb, who many of you might remember from Because of Winn Dixie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Bridge to Teribithia. Other than Robb, the cast reads like a graveyard for washed up actors of the early 90's: Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Kevin Sorbo, and even Craig T. Nelson. The film is directed by Sean McNamara, whose previous claims to fame include the Baby Geniuses movies and the Bratz series. Oh.
The plot: Bethany Hamilton (Robb) is a young teenager growing up in a family of surfers in Hawaii. She has a promising career as a professional surfer ahead of her. All she has to do is win the upcoming state championships and she is on her way to a lucrative contract. Then her arm gets bitten off by a shark.
So...the question becomes about whether or not she can continue to surf with one arm. After an initial period of despair, she learns to deal with her handicap and work around it to find a way to get back on the board in time for the championship.
The acting is not bad; I was pretty convinced, as a matter of fact. Robb is a decent actress, and the supporting roles of Quaid and Hunt as her mother and father were believable. Kevin Sorbo is perfect for a surfer-dad...although I hard a hard time buying Craig T. Nelson as the family doctor. Still, I felt the setting came together well and the story moved at a decent pace. There are lots of amazing shots of Hawaiian beaches and a ton of footage of amazing surfing to boot which makes it more enjoyable. It wouldn't have been as cool if it were about, say, a farm girl who got her arm chopped off in a combine and needed to learn to farm with one arm. The fact that this is about surfing gives it a degree of enjoyability it might not have had if it dealt with some other hobby or profession.
A few things to pick on - since this takes place in Hawaii and is about surfing, everybody - and I mean everybody - is in beach clothes from the beginning to the end. From the first moment we see AnnaSophia Robb she is in a revealing bikini and pretty much never gets out of it the whole movie - okay, I think when she goes on a mission trip she swaps it out for short-shorts and a tank top. But the point is there is a lot of flesh in this movie. That being said, there are no romantic sub-plots, which is refreshing. Bethany never gets it on with a boy, and she is never in any compromising situations. She wears a bikini because its Hawaii and apparently that's how people dress who spend all day every day surfing. But still, AnnaSophia Robb is a very nice looking girl and she spends most of the movie in a bikini. Draw your own conclusions.
Second, the movie is entitled Soul Surfer because it has some vague sort of spiritual overtones in it. Bethany is a Christian girl; there is a scene or two of her in church - a very minimalist Protestant church with a youth pastor played by Carrie Underwood who is scarcely more clothed than everyone else. There is a tense scene in which Bethany is searching for a rationale behind her suffering. But other than that, there is really not much reference to God or faith or any demonstration of how God helps Bethany through this crisis. We see her father reading the Bible once; but other than that, the presentation of faith is kind of one-sided. There is a fair amount of despair and wondering how God could impose such suffering, but when it comes time for Bethany to recover, this is portrayed as a purely natural effort of positive thinking and hard work. Not that the spiritual element is totally absent, only that it is insufficiently portrayed. And that's fine not to portray it - I have often critiqued Christian films for being overly preachy - but we are not talking here about how "preachy" a film is, but just its continuity with itself. The role of the Christian faith here is kind of ambiguous. We leave seeing that Bethany is some sort of Christian but uncertain to what degree and how her faith really helped her.
All in all, I was happy with the movie. I give it a 2 because of the abundance of young ripe flesh and for the weird approach to Christianity mentioned above.