In 2003, promising young Hawaii surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack. Soul Surfer adapts her bestselling autobiography of the same name, exploring how she fought back to overcome the trauma. Its a straightforward story of adversity and courage, all set against beautiful Hawaiian scenery. Robb brings significant charisma to the role, ably supported by Quaid and Hunt as her parents. Director McNamara and cinematographer John Leonetti also push for a broad canvas through kinetic surf sequences and sweeping aerial shots of the Hawaiian landscape.
On the one hand, Soul Surfer can’t be faulted for taking Bethany’s story and layering it with a high enough budget to prevent it from becoming movie-of-the-week material. However, it also pushes too hard into uneasily religious territory, emphasising the power of faith to Bethany’s recovery and success. This is part of the original book, and the tone is breezy enough to prevent it becoming too heavy-handed, but in certain points it drags down the plot. Bethany as a character becomes equal parts endearing and somewhat annoyingly peppy by the conclusion, although this is by no means Robb’s fault.
It’s hard to say exactly what audience the producers were aiming for. It’s clearly a family film, but one whose potential crossover marketing to a younger surf crowd is offset by its bland tone. Some gory scenes have also made it a 12A in the UK. The Christian themes probably guaranteed wide appeal in the US, and it has already eclipsed its $18m budget at the box office. Whether British audiences will identify in the same way is more questionable. Even with these drawbacks, it’s a film that’s hard not to like in places, and is well-crafted throughout. The effects work to create Bethany’s arm are particularly strong, and the Hawaii backdrop makes the occasional sentimental excesses bearable.