SOUL SURFER (TriStar Pictures)
(Photo by C.E. Chambers 2011)
The best surfers have a sixth sense. Even when the water is “dead flat” they’re able to anticipate a perfect wave and will paddle out to meet it before it’s even formed. When you lose a limb to a shark, you’d better possess another attribute: faith.
Based on a true story, award-winning surfer Bethany Hamilton (played by AnnaSophia Robb) is only 13-years-old in 2003 when a tiger shark spills her blood in Hawaiian waters. Frolicking on her surfboard in close proximity with friends just moments before the attack, they rush her to a nearby reef and then pull her — still on her surfboard — to the beach. One of them runs to call 911. Slowly sinking into shock, Bethany loses 60% of her blood.
After the amputation of her left arm and while recuperating in the hospital on Kaua’i (where she had been born), the family doctor privately tells her father, “She’s a living miracle.” Television footage of John Stossel, a libertarian columnist and investigative reporter, shows him exclaiming, “She didn’t even scream. Her composure may have saved her life.” Indeed, the first question that Bethany seems to ask after the catastrophe is, “When can I surf again?”
What would make a recovering, pubescent one-armed female confident enough to think that she could perform the same crucial balancing act required to shred a monstrous wave that she had excelled at while using four limbs?
To be sure, Bethany’s relationship with her family is portrayed as an exceptionally warm one. In the film, based on Bethany’s memoirs, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, she playfully banters with her two brothers and interacts well with her “diehard surfer” parents who always come across as upbeat and encouraging. (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, as Tom and Cheri Hamilton, are more than just comic relief on surfboards.) She’s home-schooled so she can race with her board to the beach when the tide is right and, in fact, gleefully surfs regularly with the entire family.
Raised a Christian, even the spirited church that Bethany attends is located invitingly near the water in an open-air pavilion.
After the horrific encounter with the shark, Bethany, who can’t remember one day of her life that wasn’t spent in the water, is reassured she will surf again by her father who says, “You can do all things through Him who gives you strength.” This is an obvious reference to Philippians 4:13.
Bethany’s mom, an unfailing source of support, consistently dispenses wise advice. She shows her leggy, blond-haired daughter a photo of Venus de Milo and reminds her the image of Aphrodite immortalized in marble was considered the “pinnacle of beauty but she has one arm less than you.”
But Bethany’s youth minister, played by Carrie Underwood, also played a significant part in her recovery. When the teenager began to succumb to discouragement and started giving away her surfboards to her fans, the minister reminded her that “compassion can move us to do great things and give us a new perspective” on life. Bethany, who had backed out of a humanitarian trip to Mexico before losing her limb in order to compete in two surfing competitions, began to put her limitations in a new perspective. She traveled to Thailand with members of her church to minister in partnership with World Vision to victims of a tsunami.
In Soul Surfer, except for the shark attack (which is downplayed in the film) and brief scenes that depict the stress experienced by the teenager and her family during ravening media attention and during her recovery, everything is perfect in Bethany-land. Hawai’i’s turquoise blue skies are never cloudy nor does it rain. Laughing young girls in colorful bikinis with honey-toned tans masterfully perform on surfboards, a pervasive theme, and everyone always has time to go to the beach. (Bethany’s father’s occupation is never clearly defined.) A song cheerfully intoning “This is the life” plays in the background.
A scene of an attractive but armless Bethany, however, in a sleeveless blue sun dress as she watches her skimpily-dressed close friend and surfing competitor, Alana, during a professional photo shoot — her four vibrant limbs glistening in the sun as she proudly stands next to her red surfboard — speaks volumes. Is there room for imperfection in paradise?
Or, at least Hollywood’s version of paradise. Many people who live in the awe-inspiring but ocean-bound state of Hawai’i work at multiple low-paying jobs because of limited opportunities and the high cost of living. Houses located on the water and quality time with their families at the beach…what’s that?
Bethany, now 21-years-old, is a professional contender in surfing competitions. Some of the riveting one-armed surfing scenes in Soul Surfer were performed by her. Remarkable footage of her surfing for the first time after the shark attack is shown at the end of the film as well as other significant moments in her life. Anyone who thinks AnnaSophia Robb’s inexplicably happy portrayal of Bethany Hamilton is questionable has never met her. The real Bethany, whose infectious grin accompanies her real-life footage even during the worst of times, is an inspiration to us all. I recommend this movie highly.
Filmed in Hawai’i (Oahu and Kau’i), Tahiti, and Thailand. Rated PG for teensy-weensy bathing suits and a greatly downplayed shark attack.
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published online April 2011. Photo by C.E. Chambers.)