I had the chance to see a screening of Soul Surfer earlier this evening. The screening was for area pastors. The filmmaker’s hope being that pastors would like it and then encourage their church to go see it. A grassroots effort, similar to what The Passion Of The Christ did to help build buzz.
Soul Surfer tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfer who survived a shark attack despite losing her left arm. I remember the news reports about Bethany when the shark attack happened in late 2003. It was an amazing story to read and follow, mainly because of Bethany and her family’s faith and perseverance.
Hearing there would be a movie done of Bethany’s life, I was a tad skeptical. Then I heard it was going to marketed as a Christian film. I was concerned. Most films marketed as Christian are a joke, and Christians end up having to try and explain why Christian art* is bad.
*I know some Christians would like to take issue with term “Christian art”. Fine. Yes, art is art, or art can be art just made by Christians. Yes. However, I think most understand what I mean when I say Christian art. Moving on.
Going into the screening, I was thinking, “I hope this movie doesn’t suck.” The movie does not. It started slow, but found its groove and was good. In fact, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. This may be due to low expectations, but it is a good family film.
Some minor spoilers ahead. When I do the quick hitters, there will be more detailed spoilers.
The movie is based on Bethany Hamilton, but really the entire Hamilton family unit shines. One thing Christians hate about depictions of Christians in tv/film, is how they are often shown as bumbling, ignorant, extreme individuals that lack in love and compassion. The depiction of the Hamilton family was great. I enjoyed seeing them interact and converse, and the love that flowed between them. It wasn’t cheesy, or something from Leave It To Beaver, but a real depiction of normal, loving family.
Specifically, I liked watching Bethany interact with her dad, Tom Hamilton. Those scenes reminded me of the show Veronica Mars and how Veronica interacted with her dad Keith. Tom is portrayed well by Dennis Quaid. I liked his character the best. Bethany is portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb.
I liked how they showed the family wrestling with aftermath of the shark attack, individually and corporately. It wasn’t forced conflict to add tension to the film. It was believable to see them wrestle with why such an attack would happen and what that meant to them. But even in the midst of their doubt, they rally around Bethany and each other. It’s what families should do.
The scenes where Christianity was focal were handled well. There wasn’t anything heavy-handed or cheesy. I wasn’t sure at first, but as the film went along I thought those scenes were good reflections of Christianity. In particular, I liked how the questions of faith and doubt, the questions of why something like this would happen, were handled. The answers given to those questions were believable. They were real when a character responded, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t a cliche answer or some “Christianese” saying.
It was good to see Bethany figure out who she was. Before the attack, her identity was wrapped up in surfing. After the attack, we saw her go through various stages of grief with being able to surf again. And, in that process, we come to see her embrace an identity that is more that surfing.
Some things I didn’t like? Well, some things are predictable and formulaic. When we’re first introduced to the character of Malina Birch, you realize she’s the antagonist. She’s got black hair and her colors are black. Let me guess, she’s “evil”. Is it necessary for the film? I didn’t think so, and it was ridiculous at times.
Another thing that will cause concern for some are girls in bikinis. Talking with other people after the screening, this was something that was mentioned. Considering it’s a movie about a teenage girl, from Hawaii, who surfs, I thought it was handled well. It’s tough because it’s an issue that’s sensitive for a number of Christians. I didn’t find anything over-the-top, though. The closest thing is a scene when Bethany’s friend is doing a photo shoot after getting an endorsement deal.
I did wonder, going into the film, how the filmmakers would find a balance with depicting surf culture while trying to tell a Christian story. I thought they did about as good a job as they could hope for in striking that balance.
- Being a Christian, I always wonder what the actors think when portraying a story like Bethany’s.
- The few times Helen Hunt (Bethany’s mom, Cheri) and Dennis Quaid used some surf lingo, it was almost comical. Other than that, great choices in them to be the parents.
- Carrie Underwood did a serviceable job as Bethany’s youth group leader.
- Something that was touched on briefly was the tension of church/ministry and sport/activity. This is something a lot of students have to deal with, and I would expect it to be something discussed by those who will use the movie as a basis for discussion. A good topic to discuss.
- Bethany is home schooled. My friend Dan McClannan, who I sat with, leaned over and said, “A cool, fun depiction of home school!” It’s about time. Another thing that will probably please Christians.
- Least favorite scene was when the shark is caught and Tom Hamilton verifies it is the shark that attacked Bethany. I didn’t get it since the shark attack scene was so quick. It served no purpose. It seemed forced, especially with it being at night, the score in minor key, and the crowd. That scene didn’t need to be in the final cut of the film.
- It was funny, when Craig T. Nelson appeared on screen, some people in the crowd went, “oooohh” and “ahhh”. Nothing personal Craig, but I think us in the audience were impressed that another legitimate actor was in this movie. So often the actors in Christian films are second-rate, but not with this film.
- The simple prayers Bethany’s family and friends prayed, in the aftermath of the attack, were believable.
- I liked how they showed Bethany’s friend, Alana, dealing with nightmares and survivor’s guilt.
- Every time I saw Kevin Sorbo (portraying Bethany’s coach), I thought of Hercules. He did a good job in the film as well.
- I thought it was handled well watching Bethany struggle to adapt with one arm, and how her family responded to it.
- I liked how they showed Bethany acknowledging she may not be attractive to guys after losing her arm. A reality that people face for a variety of reasons. I’m sure that will be another talking point for student groups that discuss the film.
- It was good to see Bethany struggle in her first surfing competition after the attack. She questioned God and was frustrated with not being able to do what once was so easy. The struggles of identity, especially so when she gave away her surfboards.
- When Bethany surprised her student group by showing up at the airport to go on an international mission trip with them to Thailand? Nice moment, but that would never happen in real life. I’ve organized and led too many international mission trips. Nice scene, not believable.
- While the scene of Bethany helping the young Thai boy into the water was suppose to be an emotional moment, I preferred the scene of her returning home and seeing all the fanmail.
- Loved it when Tom had the custom surfboard ready when Bethany said she wanted to surf again. Knew it was coming, still liked it.
- Liked watching the Hamiltons support Bethany while she was learning to surf again with one arm.
- I also liked it when Tom talked to Bethany about patience and waiting for the right wave before the final surf competition.
- Maybe it’s because I was born and raised in Nebraska, but I found it funny that Bethany’s youth group was watching the final surf competition live from their church. Wouldn’t they be at the beach to support her? Or, did I miss the fact that the competition wasn’t in Hawaii, or on her island? Anyway, I found it a bit funny.
- I knew from the first scene with Bethany and Malina that despite the conflict between them, they’d be friends in the end. Bad dialog commences.
- Sometimes the CGI was obvious, especially with the surfing, but it was good.
- If you live in Hawaii, you can’t be ugly. If you’re a girl and live in Hawaii, you must be blonde…unless you represent evil/sin like Malina. (sarcasm)
In the end, Bethany is interviewed after the final surf competition. She’s asked if she wishes she don’t go surfing the day she was attacked. The line written for her response was good.
The film will be marketed as a Christian film, but the first thing that comes to mind is it’s a family film. I think it’s a great film for families. It would also be a good film for middle school and high school students.
Would I invite someone to see it? Depends on who the individual is, but I would endorse the film.
Soul Surfer is easily one of the best Christian films I’ve seen. Yeah, not much to pick from with Christian films, but this is a good one.