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Film Review: Soul Surfer

Apr 16, 2011 05:03AM ● By Wendy Sipple

Bethany Hamilton was a 13 year-old aspiring professional surfer who was launched into the public conscience in 2003 when she lost her arm in a shark attack. What made her story so inspiring was she continued her career despite the attack and later went on to win a championship as a pro surfer. Her strength in the face of adversity has since inspired many other amputees to continue to live their dreams.

The movie is truly uplifting. It displays Bethany as a remarkable girl who succeeds no matter the odds. The Hamiltons as a family are a great people. They are people of faith and the entire family supports each other. The shark attack really just seemed like a speed bump on Bethany’s path to success and that was the main problem I had with the film. The film lacked any true adversity. I know the main character lost a limb in a horrifying accident, but the enthusiasm and courage that both Bethany and her family displays did not make it seem like long odds she would succeed. In fact the movie made cutting a tomato a bigger challenge for Bethany than returning to the water to surf. So while the film was a feel good movie there wasn’t anything to root against or worry about. The film makers made a few lazy attempts to create a villain out of a competitor at surf competitions. She even dressed in black swimsuits. But since she had such a small role in the film and was limited only to the surfing competition her impact as a villain was rarely felt.

Bethany was portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb. After a long string of superb performances by child and teenage actresses over the last year I felt Robb’s performance as the lead was only adequate. I don’t completely fault her for it though as the script and direction of the film did not do her any favors. The dialog in the movie was very weak. Sean McNamara’s direction was uninspired which did nothing to separate Soul Surfer from your average Hallmark movie. The film made very little effort to be creative in showing the surfing. I have seen surfing captured more interesting in several surfing movies including Big Wednesday and Endless Summer part one and two. In fact the local Islands restaurant displays more interesting scenes of surfing than anything in Soul Surfer. Even more disappointing is the film makers did not know how to capture the drama of the moment in most of the key sequences. This includes the shark attack, but also Bethany’s first time going back into the ocean after the attack. What should have been emotionally powerful scenes are blown by with little impact. 

Helen Hunt gave the best performance of the film as Bethany’s mother. Every scene she is in had much more emotional weight and honesty than what the rest of the film had to offer. This is unfortunate as Bethany’s story in the right hands would have made a great movie. As it stands it is a perfectly average movie. In fact the end credits were my favorite part of Soul Surfer, as it showed footage of the real Bethany Hamilton before and after the accident. This helped to illustrate why it is hard to get a biography right outside a true documentary; film makers are constrained by actual events and not their imaginations. If we are to be limited by the true events, the real people of those events are far more interesting than the actors reenacting the events. In fact, a short documentary about Bethany Hamilton titled, Heart of a Soul Surfer, is a much more interesting watch at 6 minutes than Soul Surfer as a feature, plus it’s free on YouTube.

It is easy to see why Soul Surfer will be a success at the box office as it does offer a great message, is packed with family values, and has absolutely nothing that will offend children and their parents. However Soul Surfer could have been all that while giving us interesting cinematography, a decent script, and inspired direction which were all missing from this film. Good thing Bethany Hamilton’s story is strong and uplifting because it definitely carried this movie.

FILMS LIKE SOUL SURFER: The Blind Side, Rudy and Secretariat


Justin Buettner is Style's resident movie dude! How did he get this role? Well, he graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a Bachelor of Arts in film Production and a duel minor in Animation and Business with an emphasis in the entertainment field. He later went on to work on several independent films in various key roles including writer and later worked in the special effects field as a motion capture artist. He has since relocated to the Sacramento area with his family and continues writing for small independent films in addition to his movie reviews for Style Magazine.

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