Somewhere not far beneath the glossy pop skin of Soul Surfer, the true story of Bethany Hamilton is struggling to get out. It’s a headline-grabber: as a 13-year-old up-and-coming competitive surfer, Hamilton lost her left arm in a shark attack, then fearlessly returned to surfing, ultimately going pro. But the film’s bubbly narration, relentless pop soundtrack, wearying MTV editing, and desperately intense positivity wash away most of her story’s drama, as well as any sense of reality. Director/co-writer Sean McNamara (Bratz: The Movie) and a committee of six other writers give the script an unusual specificity of detail, especially regarding subsidiary characters and minor relationships; throughout, there’s a sense that they’re trying to map Hamilton’s actual life over the conventional beats of a sports-underdog film. But the conventions mostly win, often in saccharine ways.
Soul Surfer launches with Hamilton (Bridge To Terabithia’s AnnaSophia Robb) explaining her life in a breathless rush of narration and faux home-video footage which suggests that life in Hawaii is a nonstop beach party, where no one has to work, and the days pass in a reverie of music, sun, water sports, and occasional starry-eyed open-air religious gatherings. Hamilton’s biggest personal issue is a pouty moment when her youth-group leader (Carrie Underwood, in an irritatingly stiff, strident film debut) chides her for choosing a surf competition over a missionary trip. Then the shark attack changes Hamilton’s life, though not her priorities: She’s still all about her need to get back on the board and back into competition.
Soul Surfer has plenty of strengths to go with its faults: The underdog story is compelling, and the surf-contest footage is beautifully shot and tautly edited. The action sequences, including the struggle to save Hamilton’s life after the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shark attack, are breathless and stylish. And Soul Surfer is unique as an inspirational personal-achievement film in the way it focuses on the protagonist not merely as a bastion of strength, but as part of a supportive community and family, including Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid (the only convincing members among a generally plastic cast) as the loving parents who struggle more with their daughter’s injury than she does. The scenes focusing on the adults in Hamilton’s life are generally the most convincing, even when they largely address her saint-like wisdom and grace in helping them cope with her new situation. Much less convincing: a sequence where Hamilton begins to understand God’s plan for her as she inspires a mute lost toddler—and his entire applauding village—to love the ocean again after Thailand’s devastating 2004 tsunami. At moments like these, Soul Surfer feels like history by way of High School Musical, all cheery Disney wholesomeness without any threat of authenticity encroaching.