Platitudes sink see-worthy tale
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 8, 2011
Based on the memoir of Bethany Hamilton — a surfer who, at 13, lost her arm in a 2003 shark attack and then went on to become a top-rated pro — “Soul Surfer” contains enough platitudes to stock a Hallmark shop. Like little waves, they break, one after the other, in a screenplay credited to director Sean McNamara and three other writers (six, if you count the “screen story” credits).
But the whopper comes when Bethany, played by an appealing and fresh-faced AnnaSophia Robb, visits Phuket, Thailand, to help with relief efforts in the aftermath of the 2004 earthquake and catastrophic wave there.
Love, she tells us, is “bigger than any tsunami.”
If a line like that triggers your gag reflex, then this tale of the triumph of pluck over adversity is probably not for you. It’s not that the movie is relentlessly upbeat. To its credit, McNamara’s dramatization confronts Bethany’s doubts as much as it credits her Christian faith.
But it never fully escapes its Pollyannaish vibe. The swells of inspirational storytelling sometimes threaten to swamp the underlying inspirational story.
The basic facts are handled without too much fuss. One morning, while surfing with family friends in Hawaii, a shark tears off Bethany’s arm just below the shoulder. There’s lots of blood in the water in this brief but scary scene, but McNamara wisely pulls back, focusing on Bethany’s stoic face instead of on the gore. We barely see the injury, let alone the shark. For the next several minutes, it’s like an episode of “ER,” with paramedics barking things like “hypovolemic shock” and other medicalese as the girl is rushed to the hospital.
Within weeks, she’s talking about getting back into the water.
Now, most normal parents would probably balk at this. But Bethany’s mother and father (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid, looking suitably sun-baked and crinkly-eyed) are, like their daughter, surfing-obsessed. Soon Bethany is back on her board, though her frustrations over having to relearn every aspect of her technique — balance, control, paddling, diving — lead to a temporary abandonment of the sport.
A more serious crisis arises when Bethany, who at one point breaks off the arm of her Barbie, wonders out loud, “How can this be God’s plan for me?” It’s a good, tough question, and it belongs in the movie. “I don’t know why terrible things happen to us sometimes,” says Bethany’s youth minister (singer Carrie Underwood).
The movie, as it turns out, does know. And so, in short order, will we, whether we like it or not.
Before the closing credits, there will be a breakthrough and there will be a lesson learned. There will even be, quite literally, a rainbow (though, thankfully, not a double rainbow).
“Soul Surfer” is to be commended for presenting a positive role model in an adolescent girl who is strong and athletic, not just a pretty face. That’s all too rare these days. So is the movie’s unapologetic emphasis on faith. But it won’t leave well enough alone, insisting on tying up life’s messy questions in a tidy little package.
The Lord may work in mysterious ways, but Hollywood does not.
Contains a brief but intense shark attack and some blood.