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Movie Review: Soul Surfer (PG)

soulsurfer‘Soul Surfer’ glides along for Christian families, but overdoes it with religious themes

By: Roxana Hadadi

If I had paid more attention, I would have figured out that “Soul Surfer” was a religious movie before seeing it. The preview attached to the film is for “Courageous,” a film coming out this fall about cops who rededicate themselves to being fathers following God’s word. One of the starring roles in “Soul Surfer” is filled by country singer Carrie Underwood, who had a hit with “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” And really, the movie has the word “soul” in its title. I should have known.

Do all the Christian themes hurt “Soul Surfer” as a film? That’s hard to answer, since the film is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer whose left arm was eaten by a shark when she was 13; her faith in God helped her decide to surf again, and now she’s a top-ranked pro. All of the religious discussion in “Soul Surfer” is based on what helped Hamilton get through her ordeal, and it seems like a jerk move to discredit her beliefs just because the Christian element of the film’s script is what makes it so stilted. Unfortunately, though, the film’s buzzwords – like “faith” and “perspective” – are part of what makes its dialogue so repetitive and choppy.

But Hamilton’s story is undoubtedly inspirational, and if you’re a religious family, the film is certainly more of a fitting way to teach children about overcoming struggle than “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” the 3-D concert and documentary film that was marketed to parents as an avenue for kids to learn about never giving up. (Last time I checked, Bieber never lost an arm, so I’m going to go with Hamilton for this one.) For Christian parents, “Soul Surfer” works, providing a strong foundation of religious themes and enough excitement for both young girls and boys to remain engaged in the story. In fact, at a recent screening, boys overwhelmingly outnumbered girls, providing a chorus of “ewws” whenever Hamilton’s onscreen parents kissed. Duh! Public displays of affection are gross.

“Soul Surfer” uses some narration to start its story off, recreating home videos from Hamilton’s (played by AnnaSophia Robb) childhood in Hawaii, where her mother Cheri (Helen Hunt) called her a mermaid and she and her best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) spent every moment in the water. Coached by her father Tom (Dennis Quaid) and older brothers Noah (Ross Thomas) and Timmy (Chris Brochu), Hamilton has grown into a championship surfer, winning a local invitational event and gaining a sponsor.

Part of a perfect American family – all tan, toned and happy – and with a bright future ahead of her, Hamilton also is strongly religious, attending church services and activities a few times each week and befriending her church youth leader, Sarah (Underwood). When she can’t go on a mission trip to Mexico because she has to train for an upcoming competition, Hamilton struggles with guilt, and eventually she turns to Sarah to help guide her spiritually through her ordeal.

Ah yes, her ordeal. The shark attack that changes Hamilton’s life is brief but effective, a flash of a shark’s head and fin and then oodles of blood, a trail of it following Hamilton as her friends tow her away and then blood-soaked clothes when they wrap what’s remaining of her left arm.

As she recovers, relearning how to do things like chop tomatoes and put on clothes with only one arm, Hamilton also must decide whether she wants to return to surfing. It’ll be incredibly hard, she realizes, and the film’s central conflict focuses on whether she’s been robbed of something that made her who she was or if she can rebuild herself by gaining a new “perspective.”

And so the religious aspect of the film comes greater into play, with Hamilton’s parents urging her to pray and believe, Sarah telling her to look at the greater picture in life and taking her to a mission trip in Thailand, and Hamilton herself deciding it was God’s plan to put her on this path. You can guess how it ends, because otherwise the film wouldn’t be marketed as motivating for children, and there aren’t really any surprises. You’ll still cheer, though – Hamilton’s accomplishments obviously are extraordinary.

“Soul Surfer” itself, however, isn’t. The main actors – such as Robb, Hunt and Quaid – do well with this, nailing the sadness and resolute determination whenever each is necessary, but Underwood is a terrible miscast. Unable to squeeze any kind of emotion into her voice, she’s flat when saying something as simple as “How are you?” and when trying to coach Hamilton through her hardship; there’s no believability to her feelings. And the film’s religious elements, while admirable since they helped Hamilton in real life, seem overdone for audiences. Subtly, Hamilton and her friend dismiss bikinis, comparing their tops to an “eyepatch,” and the only characters who kiss onscreen are Hamilton’s married parents. Overtly, the doctor calls Bethany a “living miracle”; she pushes her family to give thanks before dinner; and every important scene is accompanied by a swell of majestic music. Hamilton’s life is rousing enough that audiences don’t need this much gussying up or flat narration like “Surfing is my passion,” but we get it regardless.

The film is rated PG, and there are some scary elements for young children, like the build-up to Hamilton’s shark attack (there were so many underwater scenes before the actual event that children at the early screening kept asking “Now?” as the film progressed), the blood afterward, and what’s remaining of her arm, as well as a nightmare Alana has about the ordeal. The tension and emotional exhaustion are factors, too, as are scenes from a mission trip to Thailand after the devastating 2004 tsunami. “Soul Surfer” isn’t for extremely young kids, and it may be hard to enjoy for families who aren’t Christian or very religious. For faith-driven families, however, “Soul Surfer” isn’t the best-made film, but it’s thematically what you’re looking for.

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