Review: ‘Soul Surfer’

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Will Leitch
·Editor
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The impossibly happy family. TriStar
The impossibly happy family. TriStar

1. Forgive me, but I just don't have the heart to rip into "Soul Surfer" the way I know you want me to. This is a corny, dopey, painfully earnest film that just desperately wants to move you, but doesn't have the foggiest idea how. I could spend a lot of time pointing out how director Sean McNamara couldn't stage a scene and/or write dialogue if he were handcuffed to a chair and forced to watch David Mamet and David Fincher. I could note that it has the worst CGI I have ever seen in a film, CGI I'm not entirely certain wasn't written in BASIC. I could mock the actors for unprecedented woodenness, including one whose eyes, I swear to God, you can see move from left to right as she reads cue cards. (See, I probably wouldn't have used that take. That's just me.) I'm sure I'll get into all that before this review is over; this is the Internet, after all. But it's hard to break out the knives for "Soul Surfer." It just means so well. It's like kicking a puppy because it can't read.

2. "Soul Surfer" tells the story of champion teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton. Her family, fellow surfers living in Kauai, Hawaii, is a normal, happy one, impossibly ideal in every way. (One of the takeaways from the film is "boy, Dennis Quaid's and Helen Hunt's careers might not be going great, but they sure are ripped.") Then, one day on a routine swim, Hamilton is attacked by a shark and loses her left arm. She then struggles to get back on her board, be a normal teenager and become a champion surfer again. This is the primary conflict, and it's not much of one. One of the main problems with the film is that Hamilton, as played by AnnaSophie Robb, is completely without any recognizable human traits. She is the epitome of bland perfect, and her main struggles in the film are dealing with all the people who tell her how brave she is. (She's called "brave" at least 15 times in the film. Someone get McNamara and company a thesaurus.) The movie is so in awe of Hamilton that she's never allowed to be a normal kid. She is just "heroic." And, yes, "brave." Meanwhile, all the movie knows what to do with her is show how hard it is for her to cut an orange, with only one arm and all.

3. This is a nice little story that nevertheless lacks conflict whatsoever. Brittany and her family are exemplary human beings, and so is everyone else. So you find yourself looking for bad guys, and the best the movie can come up with is a rival surfer who shows up during the "competition" scenes and, I dunno, the shark, I guess. About that shark: Not to harp on this, but the appearance of the shark is perfunctory to the point of non-existence. I mean, come on: This is a movie about a girl who has her arm bitten off by a shark, so you can't help but spend the first half an hour wondering when the shark's gonna show up. When he does, a ridiculous CGI "shark" just pops up out of nowhere, chomps, and then goes away. It has all the dramatic tension of this scene:

(God, that makes me laugh every time.)

4. You know how you can tell a particular song is by a Christian rock band before you even hear any lyrics? (You might not know you can tell this: I grew up wanting to be a youth minister and can recite more Stryper lyrics than I'd care to admit.) Well, the "dirty" little secret of "Soul Surfer" is that, in fact, it's a Christian movie. It's financed by Christians, it's about a fundamental Christian family and it features several scenes of the family praying, consulting the Bible, leaving for humanitarian missions and going to church together. These stick out because they're so rare for a major Hollywood release, not because there's anything wrong with them. (You can expect lots of critics, who think anyone who goes to church is a character in "Red State," not to feel this way.) You almost wish the movie would have just run with the spiritual aspect of the film -- it's clearly important to the characters -- rather than trying to sneak it in. In this movie, God and faith are shoehorned in the way a corporate sponsor might be; quick enough that they hope you noticed, but not so ostentatiously that there's a backlash. Also: You could do a lot better than Carrie Underwood, playing Bethany's spiritual advisor, as a mouthpiece. As an actress, she's an excellent singer on reality television programs.

5. But there I go, being all cynical again. "Soul Surfer" is a well-intentioned, big-hearted, wannabe-crowd-pleaser that just happens to be so incompetently made that it might be rejected by Oprah's channel. I just can't bring myself to throw dirt on it as much as I know I'm supposed to. Bethany Hamilton, by all accounts, is a terrific human being who overcame considerable obstacle to serve as an example for millions of people who needed something to be happy about. The real world isn't as smooth and happy and comfortable as this glorified Lifetime movie makes it out to be, but that's part of the illusion, too. The people who would make a movie like this, who would be the subjects of a movie like this, would be bewildered and saddened by the sarcasm I want to bring to this review, the sarcasm most will. You really shouldn't see this movie. It is definitively not very good. But I'm sorry: I just can't kick the puppy.

Grade: C