Bethany Hamilton never really saw the 14-foot tiger shark that bit off her arm in the Hawaiian waters. In the recreation of that scene in Soul Surfer, a film that follows the incident and its aftermath, the viewers don’t see much of the animal either. Which is fine. Because although the way in which the now-nationally-ranked surfer lost her arm in 2003 at the age of 13 is terrifying, it is, in many ways, the least interesting part of her story. Far more engrossing and inspiring are the role of faith in her recovery, the series of physical struggles, and the family tensions that followed, all of which are captured successfully — for the most part — in Soul Surfer.
The term “soul surfer” is an actual surf term from the 1970s, coined to describe surfers who compete in surf competitions simply for the thrill of the sport, not the thrill of victory. Prior to the shark attack, Hamilton often experienced both. She grew up in a family of surfers, and, early in the film, the family’s expertise and dedication to the sport are captured through a fast-paced, high-energy surf montage, the first of many. A mixture of angles and perspectives from both below and above the water creates several fast-paced and dynamic, though often dizzying, sequences throughout the film.
After the attack, Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) relied heavily on her parents, Tom (Dennis Quaid) and Cheri (Helen Hunt), and her two brothers, Noah (Ross Thomas) and Timmy (Chris Brochu), for emotional support. However, the film makes a point of demonstrating her desire to attempt the physical tasks on her own, showing her conviction early on. A small victory comes in the form of making banana bread and freshly squeezed orange juice for her family.
Some of the most poignant scenes are those that depict small aspects of life that she had once taken for granted, like the ability to cut a tomato or hold hands with family members while saying grace before a meal. But Bethany’s mind is set on the long-term goal of getting back into the water. One month after the attack — in real life and in the film — she did just that.
The Hamilton family dynamic in the film is sweet, believable and, for the most part, natural, and Hunt and Quaid have charming chemistry. The real-life Hamiltons relied strongly on their Christian faith to get them through the incident, and the real-life Bethany has internalized scripture quotes and thanks Jesus Christ for her success after surf competitions. Bethany’s youth pastor, Sarah Hill (played by a too-earnest Carrie Underwood), was a guide through her recovery and suggested as a meditation Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” — a passage that makes it into the film, too.
At times this talk of faith may seem clichéd to some viewers, but it is also true to, and an integral part of, Bethany’s real-life story. The doctor calls her a living miracle. Her father reads the Bible beside her bed and reminds her in the hospital that she “can do all things through Him who gives her strength.” The language used in the film reflects Bethany’s reality and is necessary for understanding her motivation and recovery. A story of a young girl overcoming the attack and the injury could have been told without it, but it would not have been about Bethany.
Bethany’s concerns in the film about her future in the surf world and the dating world are also natural ones for a 13-year-old girl, and tween viewers will likely sympathize. Although a few lines of encouragement from Hunt may tend toward the obvious, all too often part of being a teenager is needing to be reassured of the obvious. “You are beautiful,” “Normal is overrated,” Hunt tells her. Not bad reminders for adults, either.
The impact zone
In one scene, Bethany enters her first competition after the accident only to get stuck in the “impact zone,” waves crashing down on her, holding her underwater. She’s working to the best of her ability, but still she struggles to move forward. The action of surfing itself provides a vivid metaphor for the eternal question, and one central to the film: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Throughout, Robb’s performance evokes sympathy and admiration for Bethany, but never pity, and it rarely veers toward saccharine. In fact, her actions and expressions are such that her occasional voiceovers seem unnecessary, simply stating in more explicit terms the emotions that already have played out on screen.
The post-attack shots of what remains of Bethany’s arm are convincing, and were created with the help of a prosthetic, a green sleeve, and four months of painstakingly editing her arm out of each shot. Despite the shark attack — a scene shot realistically and suspensefully, without giving way to gratuitous gore — nearly every shot of the film should please Hawaii’s tourism board, and the beauty of the scenery combined with the mostly upbeat soundtrack makes one rethink the value of cubicle life.
In the film, a service trip to Phuket, Thailand, gives Bethany new perspective on her suffering after she meets a woman who lost her entire family in the 2004 tsunami. And she’s helped when the adults let up a bit on the cheerleading, and show Bethany that they are just as clueless about why the attack occurred, yet hopeful about what will follow. Her father’s advice is, pray and listen for an answer.
Quaid is an endearing and energetic Tom Hamilton and his on-screen relationship with Bethany is one of the film’s highlights. After a failed competition Bethany grows angry and frustrated and gives up on surfing, despite her father’s protests. Following her service trip, when she is willing to try the sport again, her father is thrilled. And prepared. He pulls out an adapted surfboard. Bethany is ready to return to the water, to take on her new life. Her father, of course, was always ready, always welcoming, and simply waiting for her to return.