With AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Craig T. Nelson, Kevin Sorbo. Directed by Sean McNamara. Rated PG for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material. 106 minutes.
One of the things film reviewers have to notice is when a film doesn’t appeal to them but clearly does speak to its intended audience. SOUL SURFER is precisely such a film. Its presumed audience would be surfing enthusiasts, teenage girls, and religious conservatives – particularly Christians – who wish to see a movie reflecting their values.
This is a dramatization of the life of Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), a teenage girl who lives to surf. Her parents (Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt) are longtime surfers, and since they live in Hawaii, it’s an activity the whole family can enjoy. One day, though, Bethany goes out with some friends and is attacked by a shark. It’s all over very quickly. Her friend’s dad (Kevin Sorbo) manages to hold things together until they get to the hospital, but in the end, Bethany loses an arm.
Now the real story begins, because Bethany and her family have to decide how she will face the rest of her life. Is she now to be defined and limited by the loss of her arm, or should she get right back up on the board and figure out how to continue pursuing her dream in spite of what has happened? It’s not an easy choice. Indeed, there’s a suggestion at one point that pushing her to surf again is more about her father’s dreams than hers. Ultimately, though, he listens to her – and she does want to surf; the fact that she is able to retrain herself is truly inspiring.
What some will find off-putting are the religious overtones. She freely thanks Jesus and the family’s Christian faith is clearly central to their lives. For viewers who do not share that view it may seem like they are being excluded. This non-Christian reviewer had no problem with it, simply pushing such moments aside. For others, however, those moments may be central to their connection to the story.
As Bethany, Robb carries the weight of the film. It is through her that we experience the story, both her frustrations and her triumphs. In a telling moment she thanks a ruthless rival with giving her the respect she wanted as an equal competitor, not a charity case. It may be the most effective moment of the movie. The surfing sequences are impressive for those who enjoy such things, although a close look will reveal at least some of the tricks used to create the sequences.
Quaid and Hunt are surprise choices in supporting roles as the parents, as is Craig T. Nelson as the family doctor. They seem to be there as insurance. “Soul Surfer” is a movie that will undoubtedly attract more viewers on cable and DVD than in theaters, and the presence of such familiar faces will no doubt be reassuring, if only to the bean-counters at Sony. Probably the best that can be said for the film is that there is an audience for it, and it is an audience that no doubt feels underserved by Hollywood. If it’s not a critical smash or a box office bonanza, that doesn’t make it a failure, only a “niche” release.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.