Movie Review: ‘Soul Surfer’

April 10, 2011 Updated: September 29, 2015

SURFING CLAN: (L-R) Dennis Quaid, AnnaSophia Robb, and Helen Hunt in 'Soul Surfer.'  (Mario Perez/FilmDistrict/TriStar)
SURFING CLAN: (L-R) Dennis Quaid, AnnaSophia Robb, and Helen Hunt in 'Soul Surfer.' (Mario Perez/FilmDistrict/TriStar)
When a 14-foot tiger shark explodes out of the blue depths and shears her left arm off at the shoulder, it’s the end of Bethany Hamilton’s world as she knew it. Soul Surfer is a real-life example of Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey, and as such, a must-see for anyone feeling down on their luck or wondering, “What should I do with my life?”

In the classic telling, the Hero willingly leaves the village compound to go on a dangerous adventure to discover his “gold.” The Soul Surfer variation is the true story of an already-golden girl and top competitor, whose village compound was a cozy surf culture. It demonstrates how sometimes, in order to make huge gains—one must (often unwillingly) first incur a massive loss.

Contrary to how that sounds, this is a feel-good movie in the best sense of the word. I enjoyed the heck out of it!

Visually, it’s a gorgeous film (produced by Doug Schwartz, known for Baywatch): turquoise water, white-sand beaches, electric-blue waves, and tanned skin. Dennis Quaid is Bethany’s dad, Helen Hunt’s the mom, up-and-comer AnnaSophia Robb (Charlie & The Chocolate Factory) plays Bethany, and Jack Nicholson’s daughter Lorraine plays Alana, her best friend.

The only slight downer is the lukewarm soundtrack, which brings in a faint element of cheese. Luckily Soul Surfer is a powerful archetypal story first, a surfing movie second, and a Christian movie third. The family’s devout faith is a deep source of strength for them.

The Hamilton family is the classic sport-as-religion family—surfer version. In the United States, we’re all familiar with football families—granddad and dad were all-pro, the sons are named Eli and Peyton, broken bones are proud rites of passage, and crutches and casts are as common as couches. Surfing is truly the Hamilton’s collective raison d’être (well… make that Surfing and their strong Christian faith).

One understands quickly that, in the same way that death-by-avalanche is a looming risk in a mountaineering family, so also is death-by-shark an accepted occupational hazard in a surfing family. The all-consuming passion/addiction to the religion-sport utterly squelches the fear of violent death that terrifies us non-disciples.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the Hero’s Journey. On the journey, one must lose one’s way in the dark forest and fall off a cliff, into a ravine. Bethany tries to stage a competition comeback, but it’s too soon. She hasn’t yet accepted her tribulation, and loses a few competitions. NOW she’s hit bottom and gives away her board collection.

In the ravine, one meets “The Ally.” Bethany’s perennial ally is her family, but also the local youth group (led by “American Idol” Carrie Underwood in her movie debut). Bethany previously put the group on the back burner to her surfing but now embraces the opportunity.

IDOL TO SCREEN: Carrie Underwood stars as Sarah Hill in the family-friendly inspirational film 'Soul Surfer.' (Mario Perez/FilmDistrict/TriStar)
IDOL TO SCREEN: Carrie Underwood stars as Sarah Hill in the family-friendly inspirational film 'Soul Surfer.' (Mario Perez/FilmDistrict/TriStar)
With Sarah Hill’s (Underwood) encouragement, Bethany goes to Phuket, Thailand, to help out in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and discovers that, arm or no arm, she can put her skills to use helping the disenfranchised natives have some fun surfing. This is known as “Bringing one’s gold back to the village compound,” or using one’s talents to serve a cause greater than oneself.

A new sense of purpose dawns on her, and with this renewed hope, she again re-enters the world of surfing competition. This is where we finally see just how awesome she is—a better literal example of “I’ll beat you with one arm tied behind my back”—you will not find. These competitions are real, jump-out-of-your-seat-and-holler-“Yeah!” scenes.

Throughout the film, Bethany is a preternatural emotional Rock of Gibraltar, but we see her transformation expand when she even genuinely thanks her arch-rival Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores)—a supreme mean-girl who shows no compassion for Bethany’s handicap—for not letting up on her, thereby upping Bethany’s game.

You can tell it’s authentic, and this amazing display of how not to harbor resentment is so powerful that it drains all the gloat out of Malina’s face. The movie boils down to a duel between these two gifted girls.

With Bethany’s having been forced into the wilderness to find her true “gold” and endure her “dark night of the soul,” the fruits of her Heroine’s Journey now begin to ripen, as the fan mail begins to pour in. Bethany lost her perfect, predictable, unbeatable, physical specimen-self, but gained the ability to continue to compete with the best while carrying an enormous handicap.

In addition to the turquoise waters, she now surfs the waves of hope and happiness that she’s generated in the souls of those around the globe who’ve suffered great loss, and follow her lead by not giving up. Soul Surfer!

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch