In 2003 13-year-old Hawaiian surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm to a shark attack and with it (so everyone thought) her chance to become a professional surfer.
Amazingly, Bethany bounced back from that traumatic experience, learning how to tackle her beloved sport with one arm and, finally, entering the ranks of the pros.
Her story is the subject of Soul Surfer, a solid film about family, faith, and the freedom of riding a board.
Decency is a hard sell (sleazy villains are actually a lot more interesting) and the Hamilton family as depicted in this film are about a decent as they come. Mom and Dad (Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid), Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb), and her two older brothers are a tight, happy, and unabashed Christian bunch.
But director Sean McNamara finds the tension lines even in this ridiculously well-balanced clan. And having a cast of first-class actors doesn’t hurt.
The first 20 minutes set up the parameters of Bethany’s seemingly paradisical existence. The family apparently has no money woes (what does dad do for a living, anyway?), live in a nice house right on the beach, and spend most of their lives either in the water or on the sand. They’re smart. They’re good people. Everybody surfs.
And they go to church. Without laying it on too thickly, Soul Surfer makes it clear just how important a role religion plays in the Hamiltons’ lives. But the film is less proselytization than simple observation. This is how these folks roll.
The shark attack comes out of nowhere and is tastefully handled (limited onscreen blood), which doesn’t make it any less disturbing. Especially if you’re a parent.
Quick thinking by Bethany and her companions probably saved her life. She lost 60 percent of her blood before getting to the hospital. Doctors had to restart her heart with an electric shock.
Though “When can I surf again?” is one of the first things out of the young patient’s mouth upon regaining consciousness, Bethany’s recovery is slow and painful. She’s only 13, after all, and wants to know “What’s the big idea, God?”
The Christian youth counselor (Carrie Underwood) in whom Bethany tearfully confides admits she has no answer.
In fact, Bethany feels so sorry for herself that she gives away her surfboards. It’s on a church-sponsored relief trip to tsunami-ravaged Thailand that the teenager realizes that there are lots of people in this world in a whole lot worse shape than she is.
And with that lesson under her belt – and with the support of a loving family – she methodically trains to get back up on that board.
Soul Surfer has some marvelous surfing scenes (that’s real Bethany Hamilton in some of the long shots) and gorgeous Hawaiian scenery. The special effects that make it appear that Robb has lost her left arm are completely convincing.
The result is a family film that should work even for those without kids in the house.
Other films in the series “Surf's Up!”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- June 3: Big Wednesday (1978) Rated PG
- June 10: Point Break (1991) Rated R
- June 17: Soul Surfer (2011) Rated PG
- June 24: Muscle Beach Party (1964) NOt Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.