Sunday, April 10, 2011

Soul Surfer
Shark Bites Off Arm?  Move On And Have Faith, Says A True Champion

Bethany Hamilton (left) and actress AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany Hamilton on the set of "Soul Surfer". 

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Surfing is my passion," says Bethany Hamilton (played by AnnaSophia Robb) during the early part of Sean McNamara's family drama "Soul Surfer", which opened on Friday.  Miss Hamilton's parents are avid surfers, and with two older surfing brothers it was inevitable that she would climb aboard (pun intended) the surfing express.  She loved the waves from an early age, and her parents were in the water everyday, taking young Bethany along.

Miss Hamilton received worldwide media attention in 2003, when at age 13 her left arm was bitten off completely by a 14-foot tiger shark while she surfed in her native Hawaii on Halloween morning that year.  Miss Hamilton lost more than 60% of her blood as a result of the shark attack.  Had she thought about or spent a second coming to grips with what happened to her in those early moments after it did, she may have died.  Instead, she behaved as calmly as if she'd just woken up.

"Soul Surfer" tells this true story beginning prior to 2003, but most of all it tells the story of a middle-class family with a strong bond.  The Hamiltons push each other to be better -- better competitors, better leaders, better all-around people -- and they have fun doing it in the process.  You feel good as you watch them push, prank and encourage each other.  You admire them.  They are likable, easy-going, practical, adventurous and good-hearted.  None of this is cookie-cutter or Hallmark-type theater.

The film allows us to get to know Bethany and her competitors, including Malina (Sonya Balmores) the film's stilted solo villain who exclusively wears black.  The shark isn't even a "villain" in "Soul Surfer", such is the gentility of Mr. McNamara's film.  The attack and its immediate aftermath are filmed with such discretion you almost marvel at it. 

As a PG-rated movie "Soul Surfer" is 180-degrees away from the somewhat metaphysical, R-rated "127 Hours", Danny Boyle's 2010 film that chronicled another 2003 story in Aron Ralston, who sacrificed his right arm in an event that occurred just six months before Miss Hamilton's ordeal did.  Mr. Boyle's film literally goes beyond the surface of Mr. Ralston's tribulations, which were days-long.  In any event, both Mr. Ralston and Miss Hamilton continue to live and thrive doing what they do best. 

The most impressive aspect of "Soul Surfer" is its refreshing, unabashed salute to the power of faith.  Mr. McNamara never allows the film or its players to be awash in idolatry; he and the seven storywriters who craft "Soul Surfer" capture the essence of Miss Hamilton's devout faith and principles, which she has always declared carry her through trying times and in general.  Cinematically, faith and its glory are represented in a familiar way perhaps, but the spiritual feeling conveyed never feels false.  Another character played adequately by Carrie Underwood represents an a pillar of faith, a facilitator to spark Bethany to keep going even on days when she has doubts.

Above all, Mr. McNamara's film is sunny, upbeat and inspirational.  Its unquenchable spirit is embodied by its heroine.  "Soul Surfer" also showcases the tenderness between a mother (Helen Hunt) and a daughter (Ms. Robb).  Instead of the angst and tension often displayed between parent and adolescent in films we see a relationship of love and warmth.  It was a pleasure to see a fresh, matter-of-fact depiction of a family, without it being phony, cheesy or exploitive.

Ms. Robb ("Because Of Winn-Dixie") excels in the role of Bethany, but I wanted to see even more charisma than the talented Ms. Robb shows.  When, as in many true stories, the end credits run, you see the real person you've just seen dramatized for two hours.  The real Bethany Hamilton (pictured above, left) has so much brightness and charisma, and it pours through in the home-made videos we see.

As you see the dramatized Bethany Hamilton surf in "Soul Surfer", a question arises: when she surfs, does Bethany love what she does, or does she just enjoy it?  (I suspect both, and that these two variables are of course, inseparable.)  Still, aren't love and enjoyment however, the same thing?  Does one take something for granted when they enjoy it versus when they love it?  "Soul Surfer" doesn't directly answer this but it was something I couldn't help think about as I watched the breathtaking choreography and stunt sequences, which were breathtaking at times.

For those looking to learn more about the fascinating story of Bethany Hamilton, who became a professional surfer and a champion following the loss of her left arm, Becky Baumgartner's documentary "Heart Of A Soul Surfer" is an edifying starting point, as is Ms. Hamilton's book Soul Surfer, on which Mr. McNamara's film is based.

With: Dennis Quaid, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Craig T. Nelson, Ross Thomas, Jeremy Sumpter, Irie Driscoll, Arlene Newman-Van Asperen, Chris Brochu, Tiffany Hofstetter, Branscombe Richmond, Dutch Hofstetter, Cody Gomes, Patrick Richwood.

"Soul Surfer" is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association Of America for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material.  The film's running time is one hour and 46 minutes.

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