“Soul Surfer”
When “127 Hours” came out, people immediately said, “Oh, that’s the one about the hiker guy who had to saw off his hand.” And despite all that the producers and directors tried to say about how it was much more than that…..the same is true here. People hear about “Soul Surfer” and say, “Oh, that’s the one about the surfer girl who lost her arm in the shark attack and survived.” And that’s exactly right, that’s the one-sentence synopsis. Now the challenge will be to convince people that “Soul Surfer” is more than that.
Actually, to be critically honest, the movie begins sort of awkwardly, and feels formulaic. Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) is a teenage girl in a southern California community next to the ocean, where surfing is a way of life. Her parents and her two brothers are all surfers, and all her friends, too. She grows up around the water, and is most comfortable in a swimsuit with a surfboard tucked under her arm. But she’s not just a posing wannabe, they’re serious. They videotape each other and study technique. They enter competitions. They’re hard-core.
But it’s not their whole life. They’re serious about religion, also. The family goes to worship together---fittingly, in a bungalow by the beach with a praise band leading the singing. Bethany attends bible study with the youth group, and is close to the Youth Pastor. She can’t go on the mission trip because she’s entering the regional surfing competition, but she helps send off her friends with prayers and good wishes. Her faith is real, too
Whether it’s the direction or the screenplay or the acting, up to this point it feels kind of syrupy-sweet to the point of cloying. Like a perfect person living in an idyllic world. Perhaps it was done that way to contrast with the devastation of the accident, but let’s face it, losing an arm doesn’t need overstating. But it’s at this point that the movie starts getting real, and begins to involve the emotions of the viewer.
She could have died, of course, but the quick reactions and immediate rescue of her fellow surfers saved her life. When she physically recovers, she still has a lot to deal with emotionally. It takes her a while to say, “Why me?” It takes her even longer to ask her Youth Pastor how this is in God’s plan for her. Fortunately, the Youth Pastor is sensitive and savvy, and says, “I don’t know. But I think something good is going to come out of this.”
Bethany can’t wait to get back in the water, but discovers, to her chagrin, that it’s very difficult to surf one-armed. It’s harder to get up off the board, and it’s harder to stay up on the board, particularly during the difficult cutting maneuvers of competitive surfing. Bethany begins to wonder who she is if she’s not a surfer.
But then she goes on a mission trip to Thailand , to help out the tsunami victims, and there she finds a calling---to help the frightened children get back in the water. She returns to stacks of mail from strangers, also telling her that are inspired by her example of never quitting, so now she throws herself into her training with new resolve. And she does, in fact, become a successful competitor again. And along the way she inspires a lot of other people.
For a person of faith, this is an important film, because it’s a true story about someone who would have had every reason to abandon a shallow success-and-prosperity-based religion, but her faith was more mature than that. And so is she. Just try seeing this film without being moved, yea, even inspired by the true grit of this one-armed surfer girl who never stopped believing.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas