If my six year old daughter was reviewing Soul Surfer I think she’d give it two big thumbs up. She’s watching the movie again for the second night in a row. Some might think that’s quite sweet until they discover this is a movie based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfing sensation who lost her arm in a shark attack.
While my daughter was fascinated by the early scenes of surf life, I was aghast at the contrived dialogue. I wasn’t expecting Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet rapid fire prose, only competence. Setting that aside, it’s hard not to get beautiful shots of Hawaii and Soul Surfer doesn’t disappoint. The ocean is beautiful, the surfing shots are gorgeous, and the music just right. The director, Sean McNamara, doesn’t waste opportunities to get under water shots of surfers wading, looking like shark bait. Once the attack scene comes it happens so quick it’s almost easy to miss. Regardless, the panic of the situation is made clear by the menacing tribal soundtrack and reaction of the parents.
Bethany’s recovery, coming to grips with life after such a traumatic event, and return to competitive surfing makes up the rest of the film. Despite the fairly weak dialogue throughout, there are steady performances by Bethany’s parents, played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. The same cannot be said for Carrie Underwood, who plays Bethany’s church youth group leader. She takes some poorly written lines and regurgitates them with robotic like discipline. AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Hamilton, gives a decent performance, but it seems to hit Meryil Streep levels when compared to Underwood’s performance.
There are no shortage of clichés throughout the story but it’s almost expected in a sports centered movie. Fortunately the pacing of the film is fairly quick, making for a tolerant experience. Any time the cheesy dialogue or forced plot points seem too much to take, we get the music pumping and the surfing taking over. Not a bad technique.
While I understand the need to use typical sports movie tropes, it’s hard to ignore the creation of a villain in Malina Birch, Bethany Hamilton’s arch nemesis in the film. Birch is pure fiction. She exists only to provide someone to root against. I couldn’t help but think that if Birch was a real person she was either one of the all time great real life villains or she needs to sue for defamation. No need for a lawsuit and no need for Birch in this movie other than to hit a tired note. It’s as if the screenwriters didn’t feel that Hamilton’s story was compelling enough. The forced rivalry between Hamilton and Birch leads to the inevitable sports movie ending.
Soul Surfer is enjoyable when you go along for the ride. As long as expectations are more along the lines of Rocky IV rather than Rocky, the movie is harmless and fun. There are far worst movies for my six year old daughter to be enthralled by.