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Soul Surfer

April 9, 2011
Soul Surfer

Soul Surfer is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, who in 2003 was attacked by a tiger shark. She lost her left arm, and yet returned to surf again, and is now, at 21, a professional surfer. It’s not exactly hard to work this up into a movie.

We meet Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) in Hawaii, where she lives with her parents (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid), her best friend Anna Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson), and an incongruous southern California accent. Like the rest of her family, she spends as much of her time as possible surfing, and she’s very good. We see her narrowly edge out one of her competitors — who looks to be well into her twenties — in a competition at Turtle Beach.

And then things take a bad turn. She heads out surfing with Anna and her father (Kevin Sorbo), where the shark attack takes place. They rush her to the hospital where the doctor (Craig T. Nelson) who had been all set up to operate on Bethany’s father’s knee is pulled away to sew up what’s left of her arm.

Then there’s the media feeding frenzy, the difficulty doing old familiar things with only one arm, the effort to start surfing again, the initial failure in competition, and the eventual return to success. It’s not exactly the most original story to write, though the highlights are backed up by abundant home video evidence; there’s no suggestion that any particular scene was fabricated out of whole cloth. So with an A-list cast and an easily-digested feel-good plot, why is this film getting no promotion and only opening in 700 theaters nationwide?

The catch is that Soul Surfer is a very explicitly Christian movie, and for the most part I really don’t see why it needs to be. Yes, the Hamiltons are evidently devout — though what athlete these days doesn’t race to be the first to invoke the name of Jesus Christ — and they may have particularly insisted. I don’t know about their own personal beliefs, but in the movie it’s presented as a rather watered-down, mostly innocuous and all-but-dogma-free version of religion, which rarely materially intrudes into the action beyond references to abstract “faith”. But the problem with bringing in such an overtly Christian element is twofold.

First, it raises the obvious questions of theodicy: why does an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God allow terrible things to happen to good people? This is an incredibly thorny problem, and it’s far beyond writer/director/producer Sean McNamara to even begin to handle it seriously. The best we get is that “God has a plan” that we aren’t in a position to fully comprehend. But the only evidence offered is as mealy-mouthed as most such arguments; is there really no better way that God could achieve these ends without maiming a little girl? It’s only convincing if you already believe, and are thrashing about, desperate to make sense of a horrific situation.

Secondly — and more subtly — everything is just too easy. Yes, we know the basic facts are true, but there’s a lot that must have been left out; the Bethany we see on screen is simply not human. Where is the denial? the anger? the bargaining? the depression? This girl’s arm is removed and her only question is when she can get back in the water? There are no medical complications? no post-traumatic stress? Even before and especially after the attack she is, for lack of a better word, beatific.

The only implied explanation is her faith, and possibly some sort of subtle divine intervention — though, again, where was He when the shark attacked in the first place. This is indeed portrayed as unwavering, but can that really be true? Did the real Bethany’s most significant crisis of faith really come and go in the space of a commercial break? Did she really only cry when confronted by someone who’d lost even more, which moment of self-awareness only serves to make her more stereotypically heroic?

Even if all this is true, all it shows is that Bethany Hamilton is an exceptional young woman, which I don’t think was ever in doubt. But the key root here is “exception”; this is not the norm. Walter Reed is full of amputees with every bit as much inborn faith and tenacity as Bethany, who are nevertheless plagued by years of mental and emotional fallout. Faith alone simply does not fix everything; that way lies anti-vaccination and Christian Science and wrong-sounding Muppets.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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