It’s a postcard-perfect Hawaiian morning as a pair of surfer girls giggle and float along the surface of a sparkling sea. Then before you know it, a shark tears off 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton’s (Race to Witch Mountain’s AnnaSophia Robb) arm. Beside her, her best friend screams, but Bethany appears calm. A calm that you might call shock except it’s a composure that prevails (along with a carefree can-do attitude) even after the traumatic attack as she fumbles plates of oranges, struggles to tie her pony tail, misses out on her Rip Curl photo shoot and otherwise adjusts to a one-armed existence. Minus of course a few sniffles and moist moments that don’t come close to what you’d expect under the circumstances -- a promising pro surfer handicapped just as she’s staring to make a splash in the scene. It makes us all look like drama queens for lamenting common catastrophes like broken legs and tax returns.
Perhaps her stoicism stems from her family, arguably the most loving and supportive parents (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) and brothers. A surfing mom and pop still in love enough to canoodle on the beach and challenge each other to surfing matches while their children score them from the shore. Or it could be due to her fairy god-mother/youth counselor Sarah (Carrie Underwood) who helps her get perspective by showing her walnut close-ups and taking her on a mission to help tsunami survivors in Thailand.
Soul Surfer seems simply too sugar-coated to be true. When the blond, beautiful pearly teethed Bethany yanks an arm off her Barbie, it’s a perfect likeness -- of the movie her (not the lisping, braces-wearing 13-year-old who wrote the biography the film as based on). Yet in interviews, and footage that plays as the credits roll, the real-life Bethany seems much like movie Bethany -- optimistic, nonplussed, determined to triumph -- and most of the film’s characters appear to be based on real people in her life. Maybe what’s unbelievable is Robb’s acting or director Sean McNamara overselling and glossing his postcard-perfect Hawaii. If you weren't already thinking it, his peppy pop score spells it out for you, "this is the life"! On the other hand Hunt and Quaid (Hunt especially) deliver their share (and then some) of anguish and anxiety about Bethany's accident.
So maybe Soul Surfer is truer than it looks. Even if it’s not, it’s an inspiring feel-good biopic chock full of life-affirming spiritual lessons that would especially appeal to young girls, families and anyone fond of saying they "owe it all to Jesus". And who wouldn’t want to root for an upbeat underdog who defiantly competes against two-armed surfers (with her dad’s custom board)? Though the surfing footage disappoints overall -- more glowing soul surfing into the light glamour shots, than sports quality competition footage. That could be another reason why despite the profoundness of Bethany’s plight, Soul Surfer might make you feel like you never left the shallows. It makes one wonder if a Soul Surfer documentary wouldn’t have been a better idea.