“Soul Surfer” is the best faith-based film ever made, an uplifting, entertaining and wonderfully acted account of surfer Bethany Hamilton’s life before and after a shark bit her arm off in the waters off her favorite Hawaiian beach.
It’s corny in all the right ways, from the voice over narration in which Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb of “Race to Witch Mountain”) explains how she was “born” to do this and the surfer’s credo that kept her going after that fateful day -- “Life is an adventure, and sometimes you wipe out and land in the impact zone.”
Co-writer/director Sean McNamara, a veteran of many a TV show, TV movie and “Bring It On” sequel, recreates Hamilton’s seaside Hawaiian life, complete with surfing siblings and surfing parents. A coup; landing Oscar winner Helen Hunt to play the mom and the always athletic Dennis Quaid as the dad.
Bethany and her best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) are rising starlets on the local surfing scene, friendly competitors with endorsements lined up. They’re like sisters, going to the same open-air church, both members of the same youth group led by Sarah, winningly played by singer Carrie Underwood. Sarah sings in the pop-gospel group at church and tries to get the girls to think about their priorities -- “Get a new perspective” -- especially when it comes to volunteering on youth missions.
But the girls are all about time on the water, and that (with digital trickery polishing their surfing skills) is accompanied by foreshadowing. Arresting, faintly menacing underwater shots show how vulnerable one is while paddling out to sea on a surfboard.
And sure enough, 22 minutes into “Soul Surfer,” there’s a shark attack. In a moving, alarming and electric six-minute-long sequence, we see the bite, the quick reaction of those with Bethany (Kevin Sorbo is wonderfully credible as Alana’s save-the-day surfing dad), the nerve-wracking race to the hospital and the panic in her parents. Hunt, as a mom weeping and praying “Please don’t take her” as she races to the hospital, will make you cry.
Craig T. Nelson offers solid support as the doctor who treats Bethany and reassures the always-calm kid when she wakes up, “Those things you’re not going to be able to do? So small.”
In many ways, the movie turns “Lifetime Original Movie” as Bethany recovers. She’s a tough kid and is determined to get back in the water “as soon as my stitches come out,” and just as determined to compete again. Robb plays her as plucky, but no Pollyanna. Nicholson, as her friend, and Sonya Balmores Chung, as Bethany’s cutthroat surfing rival, are given wonderful shades of grey to play in their differing reactions to her injury.
The voiceover narration breaks up the flow from time to time. And the movie is perhaps a bit too intent on capitalizing on having Underwood in the cast, building up her role. But she’s good in the part and holds her own with more accomplished colleagues.
The religious subtext is handled as lightly as you’d expect in a movie about surfers. Bethany’s faith gives her stoicism and resolve in the face of a calamity, alters her priorities and gives her purpose.
If you followed news accounts of Bethany’s story, you know she’s one tough young lady. “Surfer” goes beyond the news to show her inspiring spirit and the soul that surfing, and her faith, have given her.