Last week I attended a pre-screening of Soul Surfer, the feature film about Kauai surfer Bethany Hamilton, which opens in theatres nationwide on Friday, and it elicited in me two diametrically opposed sets of emotions. First, there was the important group of feelings: the set that celebrates Bethany Hamilton as a beacon of inspiration and triumph in the face of adversity. The second (and exponentially subordinate) set of emotions I suppose any surfer shoulders was an obligation to dissect the film’s continuity as it relates to surfing.
While the PG-rated flick was bound to include a few clichés, I honestly think Soul Surfer did an admirable job honoring a young professional surfer’s unlikely story. Aside from the fact that there are enough Rip Curl logos to fill a decade’s worth of catalogs (a Rip Curl rash guard actually saves Bethany’s life: the ultimate case of product placement or meticulous attention to accuracy? You decide…) and the film portrays the Hamilton family’s relationship with the ocean (and each other) with Disneyish simplicity, its realism should satisfy the target demographic. More important, it provides a window into some of the intimate moments of Bethany’s recovery from the shark attack of Oct. 31, 2003.
From watching Hamilton (played by angelic tween AnnaSophia Robb) endure the psychological and physical struggle of re-learning to slice an orange (she uses her feet to stabilize the fruit) to choking up as she catches her first wave with her family since the shark attack, her story is unquestionably moving. The guy sitting next to me, who reeked of whiskey and cigarettes (at a Soul Surfer premiere? C’mon man!), was wiping away tears the whole way through, which is why Soul Surfer might become the most successful surf film ever made: it’s universally inspiring, and it sticks to an uncomplicated message of resilience and courage (using blonds in bikinis and a Katy Perry soundtrack shouldn’t hurt either). It’s also based on a true story, which magnifies any allure the ocean already possesses over the uninitiated.
In interviews, Hamilton is usually pretty candid about her passion for religion, and I was curious to see how that would play out in the film. The opening sequence includes a beachside family church service and a nearly complete (and ominous) rendition of “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” and evangelical overtones surface throughout in the form of mission trips, bible studies, prayers, etc… While religion remains a vital motif throughout the film, it accurately reflects Hamilton’s beliefs, and is included in a way that diverse audiences should find tolerable. Also, it helps to expect it. (You’re welcome.)
The film also includes Kauaian actress Sonya Balmores Chung, who plays Malina Birch, a competitive foil to Hamilton’s unimpeachable kindness. For all intents and purposes, Birch is a heartless saboteur, and although Hamilton asserts that her character is entirely fictionalized, a young female surfer might have some bad karma coming her way if that’s not the case.
Ultimately, Soul Surfer succeeds in telling Bethany Hamilton’s story and appealing to the best aspects of humanity, but it does so in expectedly simple terms. By contrast, the closing credits feature a stream of home videos from the Hamilton family, and in those shots, the theatre seemed to break out in synchronized tears. They were real. While Hollywood can polish her narrative and script scenes that Hamilton might not have shared otherwise, I’d rather see the same skillful editors and storytellers who cut footage of AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, and Helen Hunt acting like a surf family from Kauai, work their magic on the original documentary footage that inspired a multi-million-dollar production.
Soul Surfer opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, April 8, 2011. View the trailer below: