Like the story of Aron Ralston -- the subject of the film 127 Hours -- the tale of Bethany Hamilton also turned the young woman into an international news story.
Hamilton was a 13-year-old in Hawaii, a promising competitive surfer about to turn pro -- until the day in 2003 when a shark bit her arm off at the shoulder while she was lying on her board in the water. Miraculously, though she lost almost 60 percent of her blood supply, she survived the traumatic attack.
Even more miraculously -- and I use that term in a figurative, rather than a spiritual sense -- she came back to surf competitively again. Her ordeal and her comeback are the subject of Soul Surfer, a film that works hard at showing us that Hamilton is not just an inspiration but was divinely inspired.
The Christian fundamentalist group to which Hamilton and her family belong are never specifically discussed. But large chunks of the film are devoted to her and her family's participation in their church and to discussions of how God's plan could include an event as potentially tragic as a shark attack.
Hamilton is introduced as a sunny, surf-loving teen in Hawaii, whose father's line of work is never really discussed, though Bethany's parents (played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) don't seem to work and are both former competitive surfers. And they own a piece of beachfront property in Hawaii, where they live and home-school their three kids. Now that's a miracle.
First seen competing in a local invitational, Bethany is a daring, skilled and inventive surfer whose performance in that contest earns her a berth in the regional competition -- and an invitation to be sponsored by a prestigious swimwear brand, sponsorship being the first step on the road to turning pro.
With sponsorship comes great responsibility, however, so Bethany has to tell her youth-group leader (Carrie Underwood) that she has to back out of a missionary trip to Central America. She was supposed to go help the poor -- but she needs to practice in order to represent her brand as well as possible.
But it's on one of those practice days that she suffers the shark attack. She happens to be surfing with her best friend (played by Lorraine Nicholson, Jack Nicholson's daughter) and the friend's father (Kevin Sorbo), who rush her to the hospital and save her life. Once her life is out of jeopardy, she must adjust to being the center of media attention and coping with having only one arm -- which means learning to eat again, to dress herself, to do her hair and all the other mundane daily tasks that we take for granted.
Eventually, she wants to get back into the water -- not just to surf but to compete. But her first contest goes badly because she's unable to duck-dive -- to grab her board and dive under incoming surf to get past what is known in surfing as the impact zone.
Feeling sorry for herself, she quits. But when she goes on a church mission to help the victims of the 2004 tsunami that decimated Thailand, she discovers people who are much worse off than she is -- and reignites her fire to compete. But how?
Even with Quaid, Hunt and young AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany, Soul Surfer feels like a TV movie, something you'd see on Lifetime or WE -- with the exception of the surfing footage itself. That's spectacularly shot and features the real Bethany doing the surfing. But otherwise, director Sean McNamara's roots in TV -- shows such as That's So Raven and Even Stevens -- are apparent.
Still, Quaid and Hunt invest this material with real emotion that transcends the clichés of the writing. And Robb, as Bethany, is believable as a spunky determined young woman, without being syrupy about it.
Unfortunately, you can't say the same thing about the movie itself, which tends to be on the gloopy side. Soul Surfer celebrates the joy of surfing and the satisfaction of overcoming a major obstacle in life. But it can't help patting itself on the back at key moments, undermining its own impact.