Sean McNamara’s Soul Surfer (2011) stars Anna Sophia Robb as real-life surfer Bethany Hamilton, brought into the world by two beach bum parents (played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) and inheriting their passion for the sport. Bethany is described as a child with “salt water in her veins”, but when a devastating tiger shark attack (resulting in the loss of her left arm) threatens to destroy her dreams of becoming a pro, she has to rely on her faith to see her through.
McNamara’s biopic uses a combination of faux-home video footage and sport movie clichés to retell this thoroughly fascinating story. However, despite the pivotal role religion played in her redemptive journey, Soul Surfer’s disturbingly simplistic and sanctimonious direction dilutes the genuinely interesting, real-life events into little more than Christian propaganda.
Soul Surfer’s dramatic template couldn’t be more formulaic. An exposition of Bethany’s promising early years presents us with her blessed lifestyle of beachside sermons and surfing competitions. There’s even the supportive Disney mould of a father (Quaid) and the obligatory heartless villain (fellow surf competitor Malina – the only brunette in a sea of blondes). The opening 30 minutes becomes so cringe-worthy you’ll soon find yourself humming the theme from Jaws (1975) in order to hasten the film’s dramatic turning point.
Unfortunately, the film’s key scene couldn’t be more underwhelming. The surprisingly brief and horrendously inept ‘brutal’ shark attack doesn’t even afford you the time to laugh at the cheapness of its CGI effects, and we’re quickly transferred to a terribly unsubtle montage of Christian iconography. This unsettling collection of religious symbolism strips the film’s most dramatic scene of anything close to suspense.
Instead of questioning her faith, Bethany strives to discover God’s ‘plan’ behind the tragic incident. Her real-life resilience is admirable and should be applauded, as despite the film’s clichéd training montages and heavy-handed religious overtones, Bethany’s story is genuinely heart-warming and emotionally captivating. It’s just a shame then that it’s all ultimately undone by a patronising and condescending side story which attempts to explain how Bethany came to realise that life is about more than just surfing.
Headed up by the incredibly pious Sarah (a Sunday school teacher who spends her time volunteering in third world countries) Bethany embarks on a charity mission to Phuket to help the survivors of the tsunami which devastated Thailand. Their assistance seems to consist of nothing more than pompous and simplistic teachings, whilst Bethany’s moment of revelation is dealt with in such a trite and predictable fashion it becomes redundant before it even begins.
Further hindered by an incredibly plastic cast of High School Musical rejects, Soul Surfer’s family-friendly lesson in perseverance is marred by an inability to connect with the audience or subject matter on either an emotional or intellectual level.