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Soul Surfer

A movie directed by Sean McNamara

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Heart of a Soul Surfer

  • Oct 15, 2012
"What does it feel like?"

After the question of just how my deformed arm came to be deformed, that's probably the question people ask me the most. My answer to the question has never changed: I can't give an honest, accurate view of exactly what it FEELS like to have a short arm, an immobile wrist, and only half of a hand. I don't feel qualified to give an answer to such a question, because I've never had anything else to compare it to. This deformity is something I was born with, and it's the only way I've ever lived. So I don't know just what it feels like, as opposed to how it's supposed to feel if my arm was normal.

Bethany Hamilton knows the struggle between the normal and abnormal much better than I ever could. Hamilton was a talented young surfer who had aspirations of holding her own in the world of professional surfing. Then in 2003, she had her left arm bit off in a shark attack. Now, I've never surfed before. I'm a native of the Third Coast, and the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan - the two bodies of water I've lived on - don't exactly lend themselves to the 25 or 30 foot monster waves necessary to hitch a ride. Even so, I understand that surfing is a difficult balancing act requiring the kind of precision and skill learned from years of doing it. Also, surfers tend to use their arms for balance, and for climbing to their feet after paddling when they get to a wave worth catching. Being robbed of an arm takes away something essential for a good surf. Yet, Bethany Hamilton returned to the board after losing her arm. She also became a professional, and she holds her own. Naturally, this made her an inspirational figure to millions of people like her. I can't say I'm one of them; my inspirational deformed figures were Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, who lost an arm in a car accident, and MLB pitcher Jim Abbott, who pitched a no-hitter in 1993 during a stint with the New York Yankees despite being a no-right-hander. I'm nine years older than Bethany Hamilton, so I had just about reached the age where I was making my peace with my birth defect when she lost her arm. I cheer for Hamilton not for myself, but for amputees and deformed people young enough to make Hamilton their own inspirational figure, as Allen and Abbott were for me.

Soul Surfer tells Hamilton's story. In 2003, Bethany is a playful, carefree, and by all means typical 13-year-old girl living in Hawaii. She lives with her parents, Tom and Cheri, her brothers Tim and Noah, and is homeschooled with her best friend, Alana Blanchard. All of them are surfers, but Bethany and Alana in particular show a deep passion for the sport. Part of the reason they're homeschooled, in fact, is because homeschooling lets them get to the ocean to practice during prime surf time. One day, they enter a contest where Alana finished third and Bethany takes the grand prize, and both girls are approached by the popular surf brand Rip Curl with a sponsorship offer. Things are looking up for her when, one day, she goes out to train with Alana and her father and a tiger shark makes a snack of her arm. She loses 60 percent of her blood and has to take the place of her own father on the operating table when he's in the hospital that very same day for knee surgery. Bethany survives, but arms don't grow back. Fearful of never surfing again, she fights to regain her form anyway. The real Bethany Hamilton placed high in many international surfing competitions, so she clearly succeeds in the movie too.

Yes, it's the movies, so of course she's going to make it. You know this from the very beginning because an early scene shows Bethany coming in from her morning surf late, throwing on a clean white dress over her bikini, and running a bit late into her church service, one of those contemporary/revivalist deals that uses guitars and takes place inside a tent. Bethany and her family and friends are all devout Christians, and Soul Surfer was made under the watching eye of the real Hamilton family for a very young audience. Right from there, you can guess where Soul Surfer is going and what kind of movie it's going to be. This is also very true to the way Bethany Hamilton is in person. The underlying religious theme doesn't take center stage, but it is one of the more prominent side acts. The studio tried to cut back on the movie's Christian elements in order to try to get it to appeal to a wider audience, much to the objections of many of the people involved in the movie, including the Hamilton family. (Honestly, in my official capacity as an atheist, this whole Hollywood obsession with broader appeal through removing potentially controversial religious elements baffles me. Does a studio REALLY think I'm so shallow as to decide not to see a movie based on whether or not there are religious overtones? Best case scenario, the overtones challenge me and are thoughtfully done. Worst case, I leave when the movie ends and forget about it. It's truly insulting that a studio thinks I'm sheep enough to suddenly decide to change my attitude over a movie based on religion, especially if religion is an important element to the movie, which in Soul Surfer it clearly is.)

Unfortunately, Christian inspiration for children is something that's very rarely done well. The trouble is that a lot of Christian inspiration tends to be half-witted about any challenges or crises of faith that could potentially come up. Christianity has a lot of interpretations, and one of the most dominant interpretations is that their god doesn't make a whole lot of room for dissent. This leads to people trying to spread Christian messages often treading on eggshells, taking light steps over thicker theological issues before things get resolved by reading a few Bible passages about God's love and great plan. Christians catering to masses don't want to risk incurring God's wrath by alienating other Christians, and the result is theological fluff. There is a scene in Soul Surfer in which Bethany breaks down to her youth minister, Sarah Hill, begging Sarah for an answer to the question of how this could be God's plan. That's pretty much it for any faith crises. The real Bethany Hamilton says the incident created a lot of anger and doubt, and was the greatest test of her faith she could imagine. Aside from that single scene in the movie, the issue isn't given a real thorough exploration. (Although she also says she was much more cheerful in the hospital.)

Most of Soul Surfer is buried pretty deep under the cheaper forms of melodrama, in fact. Just about every twist Soul Surfer takes is played out strictly by the book. At one point, Bethany even decides to quit competitive surfing, and the dialogue in a lot of these scenes can be atrocious. (Tom: "If she quits now, she'll never be the same!" Cheri: "SHE'LL NEVER BE THE SAME!") There's also one of those old sports movie cliches where Tom tells Bethany that she has that gift of instinct which allows her to excel.

The most interesting scenes in the movie, to me, were the ones where Bethany returned and began trying to learn how to function with a single arm. This was the scene that showed me it wasn't going to be as unabashedly based in melodramatic cheese and religious anvils as the reviewers I had read said it would. One of the fingers I'm missing is my pointer. While a missing pointer isn't everything, it's a lot, especially when you know firsthand just what a poor substitute the middle finger is. My heart went out watching the earlier scenes with Bethany, fighting to find some sort of use for herself, and lamenting in voiceover narration that she suddenly feels helpless. It was a feeling I knew all too well, and making my way through a world which isn't cut for people with disabilities is a lifelong learning process.

The movie doesn't ignore all the media attention Bethany received, either. The way she gets to handle the media turns into a minor plot point. There's one scene where a show offers her a replacement limb if she gives them an interview. The limb is made to her specifications, but it can't do anything Bethany needs it to do, so she rejects it. The struggle Bethany endured to be seen as a peer by her fellow surfers and not just their mascot was another thing that really struck a chord with me.

The realism of those few precious scenes, as well as the theme and general likability of all the characters in the movie, aren't quite able to disguise the smell of the cheese, but they are able to elevate Soul Surfer to the level of edible cheese. Even with Dennis Quaid and Kevin Sorbo phoning it in as Bethany and Alana's respective fathers, and the scenes with Sarah Hill trying to give the movie a form of pseudo-spirituality, Soul Surfer is made on the strength of AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Bethany. Given a very tricky piece of acting which required her to basically render half her torso immobile, Robb takes great pains to emphasize not only how difficult traditional two-armed body movements are, but also the difficulty with which other things which can be done with a single arm when there's no sense of balance, support, symmetry, or awareness of one's body.

Unfortunately, since Soul Surfer handles everything with kid gloves, I can't give it a high score. In spite of that, there is a very powerful story here which clearly needed to find an audience. For everything Bethany Hamilton went through, she really deserved a better movie than this, even if she WAS the one who gave it her blessing and even went as far as to act as Robb's stunt double for the surfing scenes. (Meaning that yes, whenever you see the surfing scenes, you are watching the real Bethany Hamilton.) The real Bethany Hamilton IS an inspirational figure. Bethany Hamilton really DID endure a terrible accident which would have caused most people to quit. She DID go to another country and see that there were people whose problems were far worse than hers. She DID really question her faith. Soul Surfer the movie makes for decent Saturday matinee, and for those looking for a good inspirational tale with a Christian theme, Soul Surfer fills the bill. But anyone looking to learn about the real Bethany Hamilton would be best served finding the documentary about her call Heart of a Soul Surfer, which is fortunately conveniently on the movie DVD.

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More Soul Surfer reviews
review by . April 10, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
A Young Girl, Her Family, Her Faith and Courage and Her Surfing Board....
Movies that feature a teen that finds her inner strength and overcomes the odds are exactly new. I know stories like this are usually built on cliché; and I have often said that sometimes (or oftentimes), life is cliché. “Soul Surfer” does have an incredible story to work with fortunately, as it dramatizes the life of pro-surfer Bethany Hamilton. She was a 13-year old with an incredible story to tell, as she faces the ultimate test of will and determination. Supported by …
review by . April 04, 2011
               When is there a better time to have a truly inspirational movie than during these current harsh economical times?  Nowadays it seems we could all use a little bit of a push towards our fight for a happy life.  Whether it’s a financial hardship, a personal insecurity, or simply the cons of learning to surf - Soul Surfer will teach that the human mind is capable of achieving the impossible.  …
review by . April 09, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Star Rating:         If Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours was meant to inspire adults, Soul Surfer is a film perfectly suited to inspire younger audiences. Both are true stories about thrill seekers who lose a limb due to the forces of nature; this time around, the subject is Hawaii native and champion surfer Bethany Hamilton, who on October 31, 2003, at the age of thirteen, had her left arm bitten off by a shark. Despite her handicap and the obvious emotional shock, she …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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About this movie


A teenage surfer girl summons the courage to go back into the ocean after losing an arm in a shark attack.
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Director: Sean McNamara
Genre: Action, Drama, Sport
Release Date: 8 April 2011 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 106 min
Studio: Brookwell-McNamara Entertainment, Enticing Entertainment, Island Film Group
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