When Horrible Things Happen to Good People

The true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton, whose arm was bitten off by a shark, comes to the screen.

When I was 12 years old, my life changed forever.

No, our house didn’t burn down, I didn’t get my first boyfriend, and nobody died. I went to see the movie Jaws. Since then, swimming in the ocean—any ocean, anywhere—has been an exercise in overcoming my phobia of being bitten and/or eaten by a shark. I’ve spoken to other people, and there is a whole generation of us out there: People who blame Steven Spielberg for a full-blown neurosis (I’m even afraid of sharks when I swim in lakes).

You can imagine, then, how I felt walking into the new movie Soul Surfer. I knew it was the true story of Bethany Hamilton, an up-and-coming surfer who was happily floating in the waters off Hawaii one morning when a tiger shark bit her arm off to the shoulder. I was practically paralyzed with dread. When would it happen? How would it happen? How much would they show? I gripped the arms of my seat as the movie started and established Hamilton’s childhood love of the ocean and surfing, her loving and tight family, the importance of her church and God. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. What about the shark?

I’m happy to report that the attack itself, when it finally happens, is handled tidily and well. There is no horror here, and Hamilton's calm and courage when the event happened in real life means that there’s no screaming or histrionics. In fact, the first thing she asks her parents when she wakes up in the hospital is how soon she can go surfing again. Perky, blonde AnnaSophia Robb portrays Hamilton well, if a bit one-dimensionally. It’s probably not easy to act being a surf goddess and losing your arm.

Soul Surfer is designed as a feel-good inspirational film. It delivers its message on two levels: as a traditional tale of tragedy being overcome, and as a faith-based parable about how trusting God and his plan will ultimately lead you down the right path. The two messages gel nicely, but it’s odd to see two mainstream actors like Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt in the same movie with Carrie Underwood, who plays a minister and delivers the heavier religious message of the film. 

The film was shot in Hawaii and features plenty of surf porn for those who like to see big waves, beautiful water, buff dudes and lithe young women. Both Quaid and Hunt surf in the film, too, and are in impressive shape. In fact, the whole movie is jam-packed with tan skin and fit bodies, and everyone seems to drink smoothies and pick at their food. Craig T. Nelson, as Hamilton’s craggy doctor, looks like the only person who doesn’t spend serious time obsessing over his looks.

The real story of Hamilton is truly inspirational—a tale of resilience, courage and love. Soul Surfer captures all of the basic elements well but delivers them with sunsets and glib speeches.

Three Patches out of five.

Since people tend to look at me like I'm either a serial killer or a loony when I approach them after a movie to get their comments, I've decided to follow my review with a feature called Overheard in the Ladies Room. Inevitably, I hear better chitchat about a film in there anyway.

So, this week, I introduce you to ...

Overheard in the Ladies Room

"That movie was awesome! That Bethany girl is so brave. It's amazing."

"I know, and she's gorgeous, too!"

"Um, I think that was an actress playing her. How did they do that to her arm, I wonder?"

"That was an actress?!"

"I totally want to go to Hawaii."

"Me, too. Wait, that was an actress? How did they do that to her arm?!"

Lis Peery April 11, 2011 at 02:07 AM
I agree, Deborah. The message, particularly for a little girl, is fantastic. Maybe it's worth the shark attack scene!
Lis Peery April 11, 2011 at 02:17 AM
Joan, thanks to you, I now know that the best friend role in the movie is played by Jack Nicholson's daughter! who knew?!?!?!? (well, now we all do....) thank you for that! and I couldn't agree more that "one person's scary is another person's ho hum." none of the kids in the theater when I saw the movie (and there were A LOT) seemed the least bit traumatized as they left. I think maybe I was the only suffering any drama at all.
Jean Brookbank April 11, 2011 at 09:04 PM
i love the idea of your new strategy for getting comments. jean
Sarah Bork April 11, 2011 at 09:43 PM
I had turquoise blue shag carpet in my bedroom and I was afraid of letting any part of my body hang over the edge of the bed and I had to have the closet doors closed because otherwise Jaws would swim out and chomp off one of parts while I slept. Thank you Steven Spielberg. I also shudder sometimes when I am swimming backstroke at the pool. If you watch Jaws again today, you will see how incredibly well shot and edited it is. SS understands human fear. And apparently Bethany understands faith, thanks for the tip Lis. I may just take my almost 10 year old to get the message.
Lis Peery April 11, 2011 at 10:57 PM
Sarah, I couldn't agree more! The message of the movie is universally powerful: whatever life brings you, no matter how unfair, you're better off if you can find a door in yourself through which to go on without self-pity. In my opinion, it truly doesn't matter if that door is labeled God, Buddha, Muhammad, Yahweh or with the name of a Hindu Brahman. Bethany Hamilton displayed HUMAN courage, and she was backed up by her faith in God. Each of us gets to choose who or what we're backed up by. Bethany also had an extremely rock-solid family to be there when her world fell apart. I hope that each of us have a faith-based or family-based - or both!- support system that we trust to get us through the most devastating of times. Bethany did. Thanks for reading and commenting! Lis


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