The next wave of inspiring survivors rolls in
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
There are times as a critic when the criteria shifts, when the subjective nature of the job requires explanation because the grade given is based on more than whether or not the movie or the performances are “good” or “bad.” And sometimes it doesn’t even seem to matter whether or not I, as your critic, like the film. So, I’m sure you’re asking, “What’s the point, T.T.?”
Soul Surfer is one of those challenging instances. Co-writer and director Sean McNamara (Raise Your Voice) has the unfortunate task of following Danny Boyle’s stunning Oscar-nominated adaptation (127 Hours) of the true story of hiker Aron Ralston who spent five days trapped in a canyon before finding the necessary intestinal fortitude to amputate his own arm in order to survive. Boyle and star James Franco took this grueling story and transformed it into a cinematic marvel, an energetic fever dream that refused to flinch or turn away even during the rendering of the grisly amputation.
Surfer’s protagonist, Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), has a frighteningly similar story, although hers takes place in the water, the place that seems to be her true home. A Hawaii native, Hamilton spends most of her time in the ocean with family and friends, surfers all. Water welcomes and grounds her, until one fateful morning when, while out training for an upcoming surfing competition, the teenager loses an arm in a shark attack. It is sudden and equally unflinching. McNamara briefly seems to tease audiences with scenes shot from below before the actual attack, but his point is not to scare us with Jaws-like horror or a more contemporary gory display. And as the movie moves forward with Robb’s digitally-removed limb casually rendered, the point is not to dazzle us with technical wizardry. McNamara would rather pull away from all of that and focus on the nature of inspiration, the quiet moments of clarity that make the difference.
Which means that despite having a familiar cast featuring Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Hamilton’s parents, Kevin Sorbo as her best friend’s father, and Carrie Underwood as her youth minister, nothing matters more than insuring that the audience identifies with the spiritual crisis and what inspires Hamilton to return not only to the water, but to competition. That change of heart comes when Hamilton heads off on a church mission to Thailand, shortly after the tsunami that devastated the region and finds herself face-to-face with kids who had lost much more than she had. McNamara shows surprising restraint, using newscasts from the event to tell the story rather than re-creating the catastrophe. This is about the tragedy and triumph on a human scale, so Hamilton draws a beach full of children back into the water where she and they can overcome the psychological and spiritual fear of water and embrace life again.
At every turn, Surfer turns its back on the more traditional movie storytelling. At best, through its performances and renderings, the movie feels more like a Lifetime-styled true story. It unabashedly embraces family values and religion over action heroics and simplistic Rocky underdog poses. Soul Surfer places love and faith and hope up on the big screen and dares audiences to turn away. The film purist in me would have appreciated a more cinematic approach, but the quiet and oddly raw portrayal of survival and renewal at the heart of Soul Surfer deserves to be seen from a larger-than -life perspective.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at firstname.lastname@example.org.