2 Stars out of 4
There was Terry Fox, Lance Armstrong, and then there was Bethany Hamilton. She is a surfer from Hawaii that, at the age of 13, experienced a shark attack, which acted as a devastating moment that set to end her dreams. Yet Bethany pulled through, finding faith and confidence by getting back up on that board and gliding gracefully through the waves of adversity. She took first place in the National Scholastic Surfing Association.
It was in 2004 that Hamilton, then 14, decided to write a biography of her struggles in Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board. So there’s a story to tell in the film version Soul Surfer, about a young girl who had to face the barriers in front of her in order to break them down. It is directed by Sean McNamara, known for his involvement in the pre-teen market (Bratz, Raise Your Voice). He has an interest in studying young females who stride past their bold challenges and, after witnessing Soul Surfer, I too think McNamara has a fetish for water.
Yes Soul Surfer is so blue, in its look not mood. The mood could use that colour though, if you know what I mean. Countless shots to open Soul Surfer feature waves crashing down on the camera, the ocean resting below the glowing sun, and – damnit – if I observe another shot from seabed looking up to the surfers gliding along the water, I might just yell “shark!” to beach this sucker.
Luckily, my wish comes true. When Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) and friends have a morning surf in Kauai a shark attacks Hamilton, mistaking her as a turtle I assume. Surprisingly there is an effective scene when Holt Blanchard (Kevin Sorbo, remember Hercules?) hauls Hamilton out of the water, left arm torn off, and she is stoic due to shock. The ambulance picks her up and I felt an urgency and the anxiety of a rescue. Doctors inform Hamilton she lost 60 per cent of her blood and if the bite was two inches higher, it would have been fatal.
Yet somehow Hamilton is indifferent to this encounter with death. She’s almost happy-go-lucky and the film’s constant pursuit of the Hollywood stamp doesn’t try to manifest Hamilton as intrepid but just too casual to be a little complex. Whatever makes the movie happier, and cheesier.
Hamilton is encouraged by parents Tom (Dennis Quaid) and Cheri (Helen Hunt) to get back on the board. She is inspired (it’s that easy) and states with a pleasant smile: “I don’t need easy. I just need possible.” Yes, Hamilton – at least this Hollywoodized version – is all suited up with docudrama clichés, where she does not hesitate a moment to pull a fancy trick, stroll through breaking waves, and then narrate with fortune-cookie dialogue: “Love is bigger than any tidal wave or fear.” Stick to surfing, dear.
I predict that Soul Surfer will find an audience somewhere between ages 8-15. Must be female. In that I suppose it succeeds. It is rather simple-minded, has a cheerful mood, and replaces drama and conflict with pop music and…more surfing. I’ve become fascinated with how film depicts Hawaii, in that it’s becoming that U.S. State where the locals have no life of their own but to surf and strum ukeleles. Quaid and Hunt are fine as the caring parents, and have tans that could fit a 30 year-old. They look extra hip.
I must admit I had a modest affection for certain scenes, but Soul Surfer believes each scene can explain the next. It’s biggest flaw? It fixes its fascinating, intrepid character on Hollywood formula, so Hamilton’s accomplishments just have to ride the waves of optimism while the film endures montage after montage of events that should have been given a deeper focus. McNamara often intrudes a “touching” moment with music that fittingly comments on the point at hand. Need I say more?
The script is written with good intentions, but every line is out to sea in its simplicity. Hamilton’s story sounds like such an ordeal, and for Soul Surfer to work it needed to show Hamilton confronting her dreams, without allowing the montages to do the work. The end credits consist of actual footage of Hamilton, granted, have a poignancy to it reminding me only that Soul Surfer would have been better as a documentary. Well, to paraphrase what Godard said: “To review a bad movie, make another movie.”
Before seeing Soul Surfer I could only imagine the difficulty for Hamilton in getting up on the board when – literally – part of her was missing. After watching Soul Surfer, well, I still have to imagine because the film succumbs to easy way outs, so often in fact it uses the tsunami in Thailand for a set piece with Hamilton encouraging a little Thai boy, afraid of the water, to swim in it with her. I get it. These are two fears coming together to form courage. McNamara expects this scene, simmering with what sounds like African music, to be the cause of Hamilton’s rediscovery of life atop the surfboard. It’s pretty momentary for that to be a defining moment.
But maybe I’m simply mistaken. But Soul Surfer is all too familiar. I’ve only surfed once, yes, but – then again – I’ve seen enough movies.