Friday, April 1, 2011

Soul Surfer (April 3rd at the Cleveland International Film Festival)

[SOUL SURFER screens April 3rd at 7pm at the Cleveland International Film Festival.]

Review by Pete Roche

Directed by Sean McNamara, pariah for preteen programming for Disney and Nickelodeon, SOUL SURFER occasionally feels like a Hallmark Special.  Snippets of dialogue have the ring of a made-for-television event, and it’s almost too feel-good for its own good.  Besides, we’ve seen the athletic underdog thing done better in films like ROCKY and KARATE KID.
But SURFER is the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer who lost her left arm in a 2003 shark attack off Tunnels Beach in Hawaii. And sturdy performances from seasoned vets Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt (as Bethany’s parents) buoy the proceedings nicely.  Anna Sophia Robb is the surf princess herself—and meets a far better fate here than those suffered by her characters in BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. But what make Hamilton’s story really come alive is that her fate is ultimately hers to make.


Born into a family of surfers in Kauai, Bethany takes to the ocean immediately as a child.  The little “mermaid” is soon competing with others when not surfing for pleasure with friend Alana Blanchard (Jack Nicholson’s niece, Lorraine).  The Hamiltons seem a bohemian bunch, what with their taut, sun-kissed skin and affinity for nature—but their Christian faith is the paraffin that waxes their spirits.

Indeed, it is prayer (and hypovolemic shock) that calms Bethany when a hungry 16-foot squalus chomps her arm one sunny October morning.  Fortunately, she was surfing with Hercules (Kevin Sorbo), who drags her to shore using her board for a gurney.  Her dad forgoes knee surgery at Wilcox Hospital so Doc (Craig T. Nelson) can use the lone operating room to defibrillate and amputate.

Bethany determines to get back in the water—at least initially.  Trouble is, she can’t effectively paddle out to sea and “duck dive” the oncoming waves single-handedly.  Discouraged, she gives her Ripcurl boards to a couple of autograph-seeking kids. At home, Bethany can barely manage slicing a tomato or tying her bikini without help. 

Church volunteer Sarah (Carrie Underwood) encourages Bethany to see things from a different perspective: that of relief worker in tsunami-ravaged Haiti.  Sidelining her own despair to help those even less fortunate than she, Bethany is empowered—and returns home ready to give surfing another go.  Dad offers a pep-talk (and modified surfboard) before the regional semifinals, where rival boarder Malina doesn’t go easy on Bethany.

Robb is credible whether weeping or plunging pipelines, and her missing arm is the best digitally-erased movie appendage since Gary Sinese’s absentee legs in FORREST GUMP.  And kudos to the filmmakers for not depicting beach-going teens as sex-crazed, alcohol-fueled cretins.  Credit Quaid and Hunt for having the chutzpah to headline a patently spiritual film in a homogenized, spectacle-centric industry that shies away from positive portrayals of institutionalized religions whose high priests aren’t Jedi knights. 

SURFER is inspirational without being preachy, and sweet without being syrupy.  Who knew it could be cool to hang ten with Christ?  Duuuuuude.  3 out of 4 stars.

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