On Halloween 2003, Bethany Hamilton was attacked by a shark in the water off Kauai. The 13-year-old lost her left arm at the shoulder and 60 percent of her blood in the attack.
Less than two years later, Hamilton won a national surfing competition despite missing her arm.
This is, without question, a very inspiring story. Persevering and overcoming great obstacles is one of the strongest appeals of sport, and certainly (if a little cynically), it is also one of the strongest appeals of a sports movie. Cinema is full of Rocky stories or Hoosiers stories, and they usually beat the same drum: Don't quit.
Bethany Hamilton did not, and she has embraced being a role model for kids, regardless of whether or not they have disabilities.
This movie about her young life is OK. Soul Surfer is grounded and believable, with only as much saccharine as it needs. After all, the teenage girl did climb back on a board and win all the marbles, so the big finish in the movie isn't an overreach.
AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia, Race to Witch Mountain) gives a strong-enough performance as Hamilton, and in combination with the work of the visual-effects artists, her reading of the disability has the correct tone throughout. For a primer on how not to play a character missing an arm, refer to Jessica Biel in Home of the Brave, that is, if you can find it in the bargain bin somewhere.
Robb doesn't push it too far, emotionally or physically, and the digital removal of her arm is so expertly done that Soul Surfer is about as realistic onscreen as a movie depicting this sort of injury can be. Director Sean McNamara avoids making the shark attack itself the centerpiece of the movie; it could be that a family- friendly PG rating would exclude too much shark gore, but then again: Jaws. 35 years ago. The key point, however, is that the attack itself isn't the centerpiece of Hamilton's story anyway, so the fact that we saw a shark for just a second or two is not out of line.
Hamilton's parents are portrayed by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. Advantage: Quaid. The father seems to have more of a connection to his daughter, and Quaid has the bigger, better scenes as a result. The subtext is that Bethany's father is the driving force, encouraging her to get back in the water as soon as the girl feels she's ready, and pushing her to stick with it, even when she doubts her abilities.
Unfortunately, there are some pretty significant markings of mediocrity in Soul Surfer, although none that occupy too much attention on their own. Carrie Underwood is cast as Sarah, Bethany's youth minister (the Hamiltons' strong faith is a major influence in how they carry on), and she should just stick to belting out country ballads. It's a pity, too, because Bethany seeks out Sarah's advice at a particularly low point in her recovery, and a better-equipped actor could have delivered a knockout at that moment. Seriously, the best advice Underwood's character can muster when this broken girl asks her why God would choose to put her through such an ordeal is a quarter-baked "something good will come of it."
But as family films go, particularly the dying breed of family films that can impart some sort of significant message, Soul Surfer is a safe bet. While not a landmark movie—even in the inspiration/sports category—it's a film that believes in itself and its message.