Religious faith was pivotal to pro surfer Bethany Hamilton’s long recovery and rehabilitation after her arm was severed during a brutal shark attack off the coast of Maui. So it’s hard to blame Soul Surfer, the lily-white cinematic adaptation of Hamilton’s traumatizing and ultimately redemptive experience, for leaning heavily on Christian themes. However, the film’s disturbingly simplistic execution of these weighty elements is unforgivable, consistently pandering to the lowest common denominator with easy questions and even simpler answers about hope, love, and redemption. Director Sean McNamara’s thoughtless and toothless drama compresses genuine full-course emotions into cringe-inducing appetizers during every familiar juncture of the sports-film arc. The footprints of the hero’s journey are practically stamped on the screen, and this path leads directly into a suffocating deep end.
Soul Surfer’s Hawaiian screensaver landscape is some sort of vanilla-wafer paradise, where one can get home-schooled, go surfing for lunch, and conduct a beachside Sunday mass without any real-life interruption. A textbook voiceover narration by 13-year-old Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) explains her lifelong connection with the water—she’s the daughter of two hardcore beach rats, Cheri (Helen Hunt) and Tom (Dennis Quaid)—and her goal of becoming a professional surfer. The childish manner in which McNamara frames Bethany’s angelic purity and determination makes the achievement of that dream a foregone conclusion rather than a conflict. Therefore, every obstacle down the road becomes little more than a steppingstone to ultimate religious and ideological salvation.
Bethany’s surfing competitions dominate the island-time atmosphere of act one, with bits of tertiary exposition thrown in to introduce her two brothers, best friend, and fellow surfer Alana (Lorraine Nicholson), and the obligatory villain/badass, Malina (Sonya Balmores), who competes with them on the circuit. The only brunette in a sea of blondes, Malina’s antagonist role is solidified by her inability to recognize Bethany’s soulful combination of hard work and purity (the girl doesn’t even shake hands!). Sitting atop a pedestal on the polar opposite side of the moral spectrum is Bethany’s church counselor, Sarah (Carrie Underwood), whose sage advice only comes in two flavors: trite and pompous. When Sarah’s not making Bethany feel guilty for choosing surfing over God, she’s leading missions to third-world countries helping to feed and cloth those poor souls “over there.” Once again, the subject matter is not the problem, but the increasingly condescending tone it takes when dealing with non-white characters.
But nothing in Soul Surfer’s tedious early moments can prepare the viewer for the sheer ineptitude and silliness of Bethany’s brutal shark attack. Paddling in high waves with family friends, Bethany’s right arm is consumed by a CGI shark straight out of Sharktopus. The brazenly cheap look to the special effects sends the film into Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory, and it’s certainly the most hilariously awful surprise attack by a shark since Samuel L. Jackson got devoured by one in Deep Blue Sea. As the strangely calm Bethany gets pulled ashore bleeding profusely, McNamara ups the intensity by infusing the soundtrack with ghostly chants, as if the island gods were readying to transport our hero into the afterlife. A pattern of fast cuts, snap zooms, and helicopter birds-eye shots leads to a calm dream sequence where Bethany envisions herself riding the perfect wave into a bright white light. The entire sequence unveils an unsettling pattern of sledgehammer visual cues and religious symbolism, something Soul Surfer takes to increasingly absurd levels as it escalates the drama.
If the buildup to Bethany’s tragic incident is defined by a sense of entitlement and growing arrogance, then the following trajectory of her rehab/life lessons/victory lap is represented by an increasingly disturbing religious doctrine built around ideological submission. As Bethany comes to grips with her disability, two diverging viewpoints begin to circle her character. On the one side, you’ve got the mass media, human sharks attempting to solicit Bethany’s story for profit. In one of the many awkward side plots, Tom agrees to allow Inside Edition to buy Bethany a prosthetic arm in return for a “small interview.” During the disastrous presentation, even the family dog can’t take the stupidity on display, chewing on the prosthesis strap in one of the film’s few real moments of action.
The bloodthirsty media is combated by a faith-based platform, personified by Sarah’s increasingly strong influence over Bethany, whose dwindling confidence is restored during a humanitarian trip to Tsunami-ravaged Thailand. In a third-world tropical hell, Bethany’s purity shines bright as she teaches an indigenous child to surf and inspires the rest of the demoralized populace to take to the water and splash around in unity. It’s the film’s most blatantly manipulative and insincere attempt at emotion, like a satirical riff on the pomposity of American Idol’s “Idol Gives Back” segments of recent years. Except, it’s all deadly serious.
When Bethany returns to the sanctity and safety of Maui, reborn and ready to surf competitively with one arm, the cursory sports film clichés pop up again. The anti-climactic duel between Bethany and Malina just proves how successfully Soul Surfer strangles every dramatic scene with indulgent visual aesthetics, referencing a higher being guiding all of us from above via haloed lens flares and booming musical crescendos. In one final stab at resonance, McNamara tries to connect “the energy of the ocean” and Bethany’s relationship with religion, but neither feels at all earned or engagingly fleshed out. Soul Surfer just sits there lifeless on a numbingly bland narrative template, waiting for a big wave of originality to validate its existence. That creative infusion never comes. The audience gets put out of its misery by Bethany’s final shotgun-blast of reflective wisdom, which feels like a prayer we already know is false, a punchline we don’t need to finish: “In the end, I realized life is a lot like surfing…” But isn’t everything?