As I left a preview screening of Soul Surfer, a publicity rep asked me how I liked the movie. “That little one-armed surfer girl almost made me cry!” I said.
“I totally cried,” said the guy behind me.
“Yeah,” added the woman behind him, “I cried too.”
Soul Surfer is a ridiculously good movie—and by that, I mean that it’s both ridiculous and good. It’s hard to believe that a movie co-starring Carrie Underwood as a youth minister actually registers with emotional impact, but director Sean McNamara guides the film with the focus of a pro surfer. Not only does he steadily ride this potentially dangerous wave, he actually manages to score points for style.
The film, scripted by McNamara with no fewer than five collaborators, is an adaptation of the 2004 memoir by Hawaiian surfer Bethany Hamilton (above at right, with AnnaSophia Robb, who plays her in the movie). In 2003, when Hamilton was 13 years old and already a competitive surfer, she was attacked by a shark: her left arm was bitten off just below the shoulder. Not only did she get back in the water, she returned to competitive surfing; in 2005, she took first place at the NSSA National Championship.
The film has a delicate balance to keep—it’s true that Hamilton experienced a horrific attack from which she’s made an inspiring recovery, but it’s also true that losing an arm is not actually the worst thing that can happen to a person. McNamara and his co-writers find just the right combination of gravity and restraint, including a well-handled scene where Hamilton visits Thailand in the aftermath of a tsunami and finds her challenges put into perspective.
That’s not to say that the film is subtle. McNamara paints in broad strokes, from the glowering rival surfer to the scene where Hamilton tearfully faces her future while waves crash on the rocks behind her. On paper, the movie is completely maudlin. On screen, though, it works, because McNamara handles the material so deftly. The surfing scenes are exhilarating, and the attack itself is depicted with brutally effective restraint. One moment Hamilton is just lying on her board, laughing with her friend, and the next moment her arm is gone and the water is red with her blood.
The cast—which includes Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Hamilton’s parents—also show restraint, trying to carry on in the wake of the attack. Soul Surfer wouldn’t be mistaken for an Iñárritu film, but despite the hackneyed dialogue and the fact that the actors are all ridiculously good-looking, the performances feel real. Robb deserves a special Oscar for delivering lines like “I don’t need easy—just possible” with such cute stoicism that you almost want to tear your own arm off in solidarity.
Hamilton is a devout Christian, and Soul Surfer is unapologetic about depicting her faith. It raises the question of how a loving God could let such a terrible thing happen, but it doesn’t pretend to have the answer, and the Hamilton family’s reliance upon their faith seems authentic and appropriate.
There are a lot of people who would never consider seeing a movie with this premise unless it was a Farrelly Brothers comedy or an existential indie drama—and you know who you are—but in almost every respect, Soul Surfer is better than it needed to be. It tells its story with focus, force, and flair, and darned (I’m minding my language here) if I wasn’t genuinely inspired. That little one-armed surfer girl is really something.