The surprise and massive success of Mel Gibson’s PASSION OF CHRIST in 2004 made Hollywood realize that there exists a Christian demographic that is vastly underserved and willing to shell out lots of money for Christian-friendly (or as the media likes to call it, “faith-based”) movies. Soon after Gibson’s film, more faith-based films began to crop up such as FIREPROOF (2008), THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA (2006), and THE BLIND SIDE (2009). These types of movies have generally fared well at the box office and although this success hasn’t spawned a trend as large as something like the slasher genre after the success of HALLOWEEN, Christian audiences have far more choices to choose from than they had before (e.g. the January 2012 release of JOYFUL NOISE is the most recent example).

Last year, Sony came out with SOUL SURFER, the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer who, at the age of 13, had her arm bitten right off by a tiger shark (on Halloween I might add). Hamilton wrote about her experience in a 2004 book, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board. Her story is classic material for a Hollywood movie. Instead of succumbing to the limitations of having one arm, Hamilton perseveres and overcomes her obstacles to eventually become a champion surfer. As films like ROCKY, THE KARATE KID, and RUDY prove time and time again, audiences (including myself) love these types of stories, which is why Hollywood keeps making them.

Unlike those movies, however, I was unable to connect with Bethany Hamilton. Possible reasons: Hamilton’s plight was not dramatic enough, Hamilton was not sympathetic enough as a person, and/or the actress portraying her, AnnaSophia Robb, wasn’t convincing or talented enough. As harsh as this may sound, not once did I find myself feeling sorry for Hamilton for losing her arm. Obviously, its unimaginable of what it must be like losing an arm. I’m not trying to downplay such a horror. However, the film fails to impress upon its audience the gravity of Hamilton’s accident. After she loses her arm, the film spends too little time showing Hamilton’s struggles with her new handicap. Sure, we see brief clips where she struggles to use a knife, put on a bikini, or handle once-mindless everyday tasks. The film also spends some time showing Hamilton re-learning how to surf. But the clipped pacing of the movie gave me a sense that Hamilton overcame her obstacles quickly and with ease. She didn’t plunge to the lowest depth of despair where no hope remains. I was hoping to see some semblance of that so that I could get myself to root for this girl’s comeback. Unfortunately, that never happens.

A bigger issue with Bethany Hamilton’s portrayal is that I didn’t find Hamilton to be a likeable enough person. I admire the fact that she was an ambitious surfer and a generally nice person. She’s close to her tight-knit family and we even see her go to Thailand with her church after the tsunamis to assist in the relief efforts. All of that is well and good. However, as strange as this may sound, I suspected the movie shed a far more positive light on Bethany Hamilton than she should be given credit for. The only real flaw the film presented was the girl’s tunnel vision focus on surfing and neglecting to see the other positive aspects of life. For example, shortly before her accident, Hamilton had committed to go on a church mission to Mexico, but due to surf tryouts, she bailed on her church. In the film, she overcomes this issue by going to Thailand with her church. She returns to Hawaii with a new resolve to help people in need. In everything else, Hamilton is seen as an extremely positive, selfless, can-do individual. Call my cynical, which I am, but I don’t buy that. I want my characters to have real flaws, to be complex and multi-dimensional. I don’t want to see someone who’s perfect from beginning to end or even someone who’s sort of perfect in the beginning and then ends the story with being totally perfect. Who can relate to that?

I have not seen AnnaSophia Robb in anything before so its difficult to attribute her poor acting in SOUL SURFER to a lack of talent or poor direction. However, what she gives here is uninspired and akin to the performances you would see on a children’s show. And its not like much was required of Robb. After all, she did not have to perform any of the surfing scenes (the real Bethany Hamilton does that) and she basically just had to act like any girl her age. In other words, Robb wasn’t required to stretch her abilities beyond looking determined (for her surfing competitions), in pain (when she loses her arm), and frustrated (when she deals with the loss of her arm). In the few scenes where Robb is required to emote anything (i.e. when Hamilton pours forth her emotions to her church pastor), its unconvincing to the point of parody.

SOUL SURFER also features a supporting cast of well-known actors. Playing Hamilton’s parents are Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. By the way, if you Google images of Bethany Hamilton’s family, you will truly be shocked at the disparity between how her parents really look compared to the actors portraying them. The studio did the parents a huge favor by casting good-looking actors rather than hire actors who more accurately resemble the parents. The only good piece of acting in the film, not surprisingly, comes from Quaid and Hunt (who’s won an Academy Award for AS GOOD AS IT GETS). I wouldn’t be surprised if the lack of talented actors prompted them to cast a few roles with good, well-known performers.

The most annoying casting in the film is Carrie Underwood (the country music star), who plays Hamilton’s church pastor/counselor. I doubt most female church pastors look like plastic surgery-enhanced blond goddesses. I know the film takes place in Hawaii, where its populated by pretty people, but having Underwood play such a role completely undermines any effect her scenes are intended to convey. All I noticed was how white her teeth were.

The only thing left to enjoy about SOUL SURFER are the surfing scenes, which as I mention earlier, were performed by the real Bethany Hamilton. But even here, the footage is not shot as well as it could have been. I’ve been spoiled by such great surfing documentaries as ENDLESS SUMMER and RIDING GIANTS, both of which I HIGHLY recommend (especially RIDING GIANTS). The surfing sequences lack any excitement here and it was a huge missed opportunity for the filmmakers.

On an end note, I think its worth mentioning that whereas everyone in this movie is played by white actors, the ‘villain’ character is played by a dark-skinned, black-haired actress. Hmmm.

So there you have it. I’m not recommending SOUL SURFER, but if you’re the kind of person who likes films such shallow crap as THE VOW, THE NOTEBOOK, and any cheesy, poorly acted, beautifully populated, Disney-esque film, then this film is right up your alley.

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