Soul Surfer Review: With Arm Wide Open

By Brian Prisco | Film Reviews | April 8, 2011 | Comments ()


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Unlike Aron Ralston, Bethany Hamilton is actually a one-armed hero. After a shark tore off her left arm in 2003, through determination and devout faith, she got back on her surfboard and continued to compete professionally. And it wasn't a matter of let's pity the wounded warrior -- Hamilton went on to place or win in several major professional events with the use of a modified board designed by her father. Her greatest achievement isn't survival, it's that she experienced heartbreaking and life changing adversity, and through unwavering commitment to her sport and her God, she's continued to compete and to help others. Bethany Hamilton is an amazing person.

However, since the accident, they've parlayed her devotion into a marketing campaign for Jesus. Bethany wrote a memoir of the incident, Soul Surfer, with the help of two other folks, which soon became a special book of Soul Surfer devotionals and even a Soul Surfer bible. In 2004, Bethany won an ESPY for Best Comeback and a special Teen Choice Award for courage. This unrelenting wave of Jesus culminates in Sean McNamara's film, Soul Surfer, an incredibly idealized and overly polished batch of hokum that completely diminishes the accomplishments of this astoundingly brave young girl to brand-market Christ to the masses. It's Injured Athlete Triumphant Template B gooed over with MTV splash-cuts of girls in bikinis and beaches and cemented with soggy Christ Crispies, then stuffed into your face. It'll be an easy sell to the Christian markets -- they'll pretty much swallow anything so long as you slap a cross or a halo on it regardless of quality -- but selling a wholesome inspirational religious drama to a tween audience? I would have thought impossible if I hadn't seen the footage of Bethany Hamilton praising her savior at the Nickelodeon awards ceremony to thunderous and insane applause.

Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) was practically born on a surfboard. Living in Hawaii and being homeschooled, she split her days between riding waves and riding high on Christ in a youth ministry run by Sarah Hill (Carrie Underwood in her film debut). Her parents Cheri and Tom (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid, respectively) were both devotees of Christ and tasty waves, and so they instilled a commitment to both in their children. Much of the film demonstrates how wonderfully and spiritually close the family is: there are constant shots of everybody cheering and whooping and spending all their time together in such a loving, perfect family circle. The family supports Bethany as she goes on to compete and win the major surfing event. Because this is a film written (with an arsenal of five or six other screenwriters) and directed by a man ground out by the Disney grist mill, she's given an enemy competitor, a wholesome puppydog love interest, and a basic plotting that's every gritty comeback athlete film ever made.

While surfing out with Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson), her best friend and co-pro competitor, and Alana's brother Byron and her father Holt (Kevin Sorbo, "Hercules") on Halloween in 2003, Bethany gets attacked by a tiger shark. Through the magic of the Jaws cam, the attack is pretty savage, but shockingly effective. The shark basically tears through her board and rips off her arm just below the shoulder. Bethany remains relatively calm as Holt and the family scramble to save her. She begs God not to take her. Bethany Hamilton lost almost three fourths of her blood, but through the efforts of the local doctor (Craig T. Nelson), she survives. And she almost immediately wants to get back on the board. So she can lose, then quit, then compete again in the big competition as required by the Hollywood law of threes.

The fact that Bethany Hamilton got back on her board is enough heroism for me. She's a role model just by competing. The Footprints aren't showing only one pair because that's when Jesus was out riding the half-pipe, Bethany Hamilton did that. But Jesus needs credit. I'm glad that her faith was what inspired her to get back on the board. And by riding that board, she's a shining beacon of what faith can do to a person. But at the bottom of that beacon is now a gift shop and vendors selling T-shirts, and a ticket booth so that you can see the beacon. Because Jesus doesn't just take credit, he'll also take personal checks and cash.

Soul Surfer would have been an alright movie -- surfing's probably one of the least exciting sports to watch since so much of it relies on technical merit. Even in NASCAR movies they only show crashes or passes. But McNamara creates an almost TOO perfect version of what happened. While her "villain competitor" trashes her, Bethany turns the other cheek. The real Bethany Hamilton wore board shorts and braces. AnnaSophia Robb is in a bikini at every opportunity. Because wholesome sex is the most pure sex, especially when it involves swimsuit shoots with underage girls. Carrie Underwood plays Sarah Hill, who from photographs looks a little more like Tracy Turnblad. But fat women aren't allowed to be inspirational, Jesus only loves the toned, tanned and blonde. Check out his abs next time you're in a Christian church. During the shark attack, according to her own story, Bethany Hamilton and her friend were splashing in the water making dolphin noises. Which is a perfectly acceptable thing for a teenage girl to do. However, this might make her look like she caused her own accident, which would then take it out of the nobility of God's plan for her. And focus groups hate that shit.

The most insulting scene to me was when she went on a mission trip to help recent victims of the tsunami that devastated Thailand. While wandering the beach, trying to figure out how to help, Sarah Hill shows Bethany a little orphaned boy who hasn't smiled yet and won't tell anyone his name. So she approaches him, and tries to coax him into the water. Sure, strange white girl. Clearly, a young child from Thailand who must clearly speak English wants to go with a stranger back into the ocean that just KILLED HIS ENTIRE FUCKING VILLAGE. As if this weren't bad enough, she borrows a surfboard from one of the locals sitting around on the devastated beach with all the subtlety of Marty McFly borrowing a hoverboard. Then again, you know there's probably going to be some killer waves. Right after a tsunami. You assholes. She goes out the water and starts paddling around in the surf, which through the magic of Jeebus draws out the little boy who then begins playing in the water with her. Now at this point, fine, I will accept the fact that a pretty blonde girl can get a sad toddler to play on her surfboard. That's not even a major suspension of disbelief. But then, all the villagers see them playing in the water, and so they all cheer and run out in the water. Because, hey, let's all take a break from trying to sift this rubble to find another decimated corpse for BEACH BLANKET BINGO! Hang ten! Or is that ten people hanging from the wreckage of a hotel that was just hit by a fucking tsunami.

Jesus has a really shitty marketing team. Because everything has to be perfect and lily white. Everything has to be boiled down and shined until it glistens with the Lord's everlasting light. When I first heard the song "Flood" by Jars of Clay, I loved it. It's a good song. Listening closer, I kind of recognized the gist of some of those lyrics, sounded kind of like a story I heard back in Sunday School. That's when I realized, oh, man, I'm listening to Christian rock. And I could give a shit. Because it was a good song, no matter what affiliation, and it made me want to listen to more Jars of Clay. I even branched out into some other Christian rock, but found it to be more along the lines of swapping Jesus for Baby and trying to make a few shekels off the masses yearning to praise.

There's a moment in the film where Helen Hunt is giving the girls a harder homework assignment because they were out nightsurfing without permission. And it occurs to me that this is perfectly demonstrates the advantages of homeschooling. Professional athletes can compete, families work together to create their own small schooling program and work together, not all the kids are pasty white bespectacled spelling bee dominators. Just with subtlety. And it's a shame that Bethany Hamilton's achievements are being Christwashed and turned into junior novelizations, Coldstone Creamery marketing campaigns and a jewelry line. Soul Surfer is a decent enough film about an admirable young woman trying to get back on her board and regain her life. It's achingly formulaic, and still effective, even if you don't quite comprehend how surf scoring works. Dropping into a sick wave isn't quite as dramatic as hitting a jump shot at the buzzer, but whatever. Scoreboard, motherfucker. But when the film version of Bethany tells a reporter about the accident, and that if she didn't lose her arm to an attack she "wouldn't be able to embrace as many people" as she can now, it makes me sick to my heart. That's why the picture that heads up this article is of Bethany Hamiton, because no matter how complicit she is in profiting on her injury, she's at least earned my respect.



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