It's tough to produce a faith-based film that's accessible to audiences outside their target demographic, and it's even more difficult to do so inside the confines of a true-to-life tale with a documented ending. To a certain extent, Soul Surfer defies the premises' limitations in telling Bethany Hamilton's story of determination in the face of misfortune and a crisis of faith, only peppering in core spiritual reflections where they're needed and, in the process, delivering an admirable share of competent sports drama amid Hawaii's gorgeous waves. While some of its tones border on heavy-handedness and the dialogue could use a lot of polish, AnnaSophia Robb admirably supports the story's inspirational weight, shaping it into an earnest-enough piece of family cinema that revels in its own cliches.
You've got to give director Sean McNamara a little time, though, because things start off rocky. Maybe it's because we're fully aware that hardcore surfer Bethany (Robb) will lose her arm in a shark attack that the lead-up moves along so clumsily, but hearing about her mother (Helen Hunt) referring to her as a mermaid, why she's a stay-at-home-student, and whether her mother and father (Dennis Quaid) would've let her go night surfing or not doesn't craft engaging-enough drama to distract from the anticipation. Adding in a villainous opponent for Bethany during an important surf meet, as well as employing singer (and non-actor) Carrie Underwood as Bethany's "perspective"-teaching youth minister Sarah, doesn't help, giving the front-end of the story a cheesy and manipulative attitude, even if it serves the important purposes of illustrating the surfer's early competitiveness, diligence, and belief in God's design and grace.
No big surprise here: the actual event that changes Bethany's life becomes the pivot point to Soul Surfer's strengths, justifying the lumbering introduction to her and her family. McNamara doesn't concentrate on the shark attack itself for emotional punch, the jerky visual effect during the scene really underscoring that fact; he wants to get over that violent hurdle as quick and "painlessly" as possible, so as not to discomfort his age-appropriate audience. He instead stresses the accident's magnitude by focusing on the blitzed moments afterwards to save Bethany's life, and it's here that Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt -- and even Kevin Sorbo in a small part -- earn their salt, as they elevate the labored paternal dialogue suitably, if a little out-of-water when circling faith-based themes. Bethany's father overtly reading a Bible at her hospital bedside and her mother begging God not to take her daughter both benefit from the seasoned actors' presences.
AnnaSophia Robb, however, feels completely in her comfort zone here, coming to life as the determined surfer girl with salt water in her veins, clear moral fiber, and an unflinching attitude. While the film overstresses her handicap for added effect -- one too many awkward moments occur in a row where she can't do something one-armed -- Robb makes every scene feel as heartfelt as possible, allowing her natural cheerfulness and resolute intensity to dim and intensify with the persuasive tones. It makes Bethany's down moments a lot more poignant than expected; there's one where she visits her youth minister and questions God's design after the attack, and Robb makes the audience care about her faltering faith without forcing them to necessarily think or feel the same. She makes us understand that it's important to her, and that's what matters.
In true underdog sports-movie fashion, sort of like The Karate Kid on waves, Soul Surfer places a lot of emphasis on Bethany pulling herself up by her bootstraps, retraining herself, and defying the odds, complete with a training montage and cheery mentorship. While there aren't a lot of surprises, especially if you've seen the exposition-heavy trailer, the way that the surfing is filmed against the Hawaiian locales -- especially the waves themselves, and how the young surfer cuts through them -- adds natural oomph to the familiar attitude, allowing the audience to get wrapped up in the natural essence of Bethany's tumble-heavy journey back to what she so richly loves. It'd be easy to overlook the surfing scenes, as they seem so fundamentally fixed in the story, but there's realized aesthetic creativity at-play here. You'll feel the impact of one particular wave when it swallows Bethany up in her first return to competition.
Soul Surfer has a number of flaws, namely a consistent ham-fisted attitude stemming from its overcooked script, but it still does a lot of things right and, in the process, communicates a message of having faith in one's self without appearing too cloying or exaggerated as it nears its conclusion. Could a more assured or hardnosed biopic about Bethany Hamilton accomplished the same things? Assuredly. But McNamara's take on her reemergence in the world of surfing seems to get a lot of personal details right (based on the home video footage at the end of the film), and it's an attractively-handled, attentive and comprehensible portrait that, sure, offers a few twinges of inspiration along the way -- though, really, they're more hinged on it being a reflection of the true story than anything McNamara's done here.
Video and Audio:
Where some studios occasionally neglect DVD releases alongside their Blu-ray offerings, Sony consistently delivers on both fronts, and the gorgeous Hawaiian cinematography in Soul Surfer becomes another high-quality standard-definition success from the label. Enhanced for 16x9 televisions and framed at 2.35:1, the rich blues and sun-baked skin-'n-sand looks pretty darn marvelous, only occasionally showing some flatness in dimension and sporadic instances of heavier-than-expected noise. The robust gradation of aquatic blues underneath the waves looks exquisite, with fine shifts in contrast that reveal the nuance of the crashing water everywhere needed. Extremely satisfying.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn't on the same caliber as the visual treatment, seeming a little lacking in breadth than the design boasts, but it's a fine affair as well. The same waves that look crisp and vigorous also offer robust crashes and splashes from the front-end speakers, while the popping of fireworks, the clicking of cameras, and the prevalent essence of Hawaii's water environment stir among the rear channels. A lot of music also powers the film along (Hey, you Two Door Cinema Club fans will get to hear some of their work!), and it occasionally makes use of the lower-frequency channel in poppy fashion. All in all, not too shabby. English and French language tracks are available alongside English, English SDH, French and Spanish optional subs.
The Making of Soul Surfer (12:48, 16x9):
About as standard as you can get at first, this press-kit slate of interviews and behind-the-scenes shots discusses the cast, the direction, and the heart of Bethany Hamilton's story. Later on, though, Sean McNamara gets into a bit of the photography at-play in the film, discussing how he draws out his scenes and revealing some cool footage of their water-based "sets" (especially around the shark attack scene). Bethany Hamilton makes appearances at times in the featurette, offering little bits of commentary where needed.
Several other featurettes elaborate some on the underlying elements introduced in the making-of piece, with Surfing for the Screen: Inside the Action (5:30, 16x9) discussing how the filmmakers -- and AnnaSophia Robb herself -- got the look and feel of the surfing down right and Becoming Bethany (3:20, 16x9) interchanging interviews with Robb and Hamilton about the film's portrayal of the surfer. Also, we've got two pieces dedicated to Bethany Hamilton herself: one, Heart of a Soul Surfer (30:31) being a lengthy documentary/retrospective on Hamilton's history containing some raw camcorder footage of the surfer, and brief piece from Bethany Hamilton on Professional Surfing (4:55, 16x9). And we've also got a collection of Deleted Scenes (3:57, 16x9), though it's actually eight (8) very brief snippets.
You're sure to find a few issues with Soul Surfer, the story of surfer Bethany Hamilton's comeback story after a shark attack left her without an arm, but there's enough sincerity, sturdy-enough performances, and appealing cinematography in the surfing itself to look over some unfortunate filmmaking bruises. While steeped in the familiarity of both faith-based and sports-based films, mindfully juggling those elements without trying to seem too blunt or too predictable, AnnaSophia Robb's steady-handed delivery of the sterling, dedicated teenager makes it worth the time to experience the warming inspirational story. Firmly Recommended for a family movie night, though it's really not going to sway those who weren't interested after seeing the trailer.