Nobody goes to the movies to hear a sermon. When someone finds their seat in the theater and the lights go down, they’re looking to be entertained and nothing more, but if the movie has religious themes, it can sometimes feel like it's trying to convert them. From the preachy Letters to God to the guilt trip in The Passion of the Christ, religious themed movies do too much to spread their agenda rather than tell a story. The religion centric Soul Surfer should fall in line with that crowd—characters quote scripture, attend church and youth gatherings, participate in mission trips around the world and read the Bible in times of distress—but it never does. This is simply a story about a Christian family with Christian values who use their beliefs to give them the strength to cope with a near tragedy. While nowhere near perfect, Soul Surfer is accessible to everybody, Christian or otherwise, and that is where its beauty lies.
The film is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), a young surf enthusiast who one day hopes to be a professional surfer, but finds herself in a precarious situation when a shark bites her arm off as she rests on her board out in the ocean. Despite losing nearly 60% of the blood in her body, Bethany survives, but doesn’t know if she’ll ever again be able to do the one thing she loves. But with the help of her parents, Cheri (Helen Hunt) and Tom (Dennis Quaid), she hops back on the board and attempts to work through the struggles of trying to surf with one arm.
Soul Surfer is an inspiring movie, perhaps the most inspiring one you’ll see all year. It shows the triumph of a young girl who suffered through a painful ordeal, but found the strength to bounce back without compromising anything that made her special. As she goes through the emotional ups and downs an experience like this would undoubtedly bring forth, she ultimately learns that the world is greater than just her and that she shouldn’t mope around feeling sorry for herself. This is a movie that will remind viewers to be grateful for what they have and not to worry about what they don’t.
It’s an admirable message that is easy to pick up on and should be relevant to every person watching, but as you might expect, it comes with its fair share of cheese. There are certain scenes in Soul Surfer that are so unbearably cheesy they become laughable, which strips away much of its heart. It’s a problem that pervades many religious films because characters rely on otherworldly forces that will make the more cynical audience members roll their eyes. Once it gets to the workout montage late in the movie that features a song with the lyrics, “This is your moment,” you’ll wonder if the film is about to go over the rails, but it doesn’t.
You also might expect some melodrama, but you’ll be surprised by how little there is. Except for a few standout scenes, most of what happens rings true thanks to some terrific performances, particularly from AnnaSophia Robb, who is pretty, innocent and strong and deserves some respect (if you can forget about Race to Witch Mountain). She portrays Bethany beautifully and shows how she never lost her strength, her faith or her love for surfing.
Soul Surfer is a tad manipulative, sure, especially given the slow, moody score that tells you exactly when you should tear up, but it brought out my weaker side and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me. This is a good natured film that no family should shy away from this weekend. It will teach your kids some valuable lessons and you’ll come to care about these characters, even if your beliefs are polar opposite of theirs.
Soul Surfer receives 3.5/5