The surfing subculture is something that Hollywood has notoriously had difficulties capturing with authenticity. Valiant efforts have been made, but tend to cross the line into parody and caricature. Shakas are forced, “bro’s” are called one too many times, and people get barreled on their second day surfing.
With Soul Surfer, Hollywood at least has some help. The film is based on a true story – a story so remarkable that it’s difficult to tell if some things had been fudged for the sake of box office figures. But fudged they were not – Bethany Hamilton really was a child surfing prodigy, she really did have her arm tragically bitten off by a shark, and she really did bounce back not only to surf, but to compete. In fact, just yesterday she was surfing in a heat at Bells Beach in Australia at the Rip Curl Pro. Competing in such a contest is a remarkable feat for a person with two arms, but for a person with one arm it almost seems impossible. But there she is, paddling away and dropping into waves that would make even seasoned surfers think twice. Surfing is a sport that is extremely reliant on paddling power and arm strength. The fact that Bethany is able to surf so well without one of her arms blows my mind.
The movie itself isn’t perfect. It has it’s moments of schmaltz and gooey sweetness that could make your teeth hurt. The “villain,” a girl who is perpetually wearing black and making snide remarks to Bethany, is a bit over the top. Bethany seems almost too good to be true, slaying said villain with a smile and a kind word. My screenwriting professor would call this “on-the-nose.” Despite this, however, it has enough emotional impact to make a grown man tear up: I was talking to a guy in the lineup the other day – a man with tattoos on his face, someone you’d definitely think twice before crossing. “My eyes were watering,” he said.
The thing is, I always knew the story of Bethany Hamilton, but I didn’t really know it. I didn’t read her book, and I hadn’t really seen her surfing. I thought it was utterly amazing that she could surf with one arm, but beyond that I didn’t give it much thought. The movie really drives it home how much of a triumphant comeback she made.
It must have given Hollywood a nervous twitch to release a movie with such a feel good theme. This is an excellent movie not only to bring your kids to, but to bring your parents to as well. It’s been reported that the Hamiltons fought hard to include a lot of Christian themes in the movie. As a Christian myself I tend to wince when Christianity is ham-fisted down unwilling throats. While the movie does include ample bible quoting and youth group going, I feel that it’s not over the top. It serves as a plot element – after all, Bethany does truly get a lot of strength from her belief in God. That’s not something you can leave out of the script. So don’t run the other way because of a supposed religious agenda. You can take it or leave it, but you can’t exactly leave it out.
Overall I really did like this movie. I tend to agree with Roger Ebert that there weren’t enough emotional valleys to complement the peaks, but it was extremely refreshing to go to the movies and watch something that made me feel good about life, and going after what you want with all your heart.
I have a tremendous new respect for Bethany, and I’m sure she will be winning many more fans as a result of this movie.
Check out the trailer here, and follow Bethany on twitter!
If you’re in the Southern California area, you can view the board that Bethany was on when the shark attacked her. It has been donated by the Hamilton family for an unlimited time and is on display at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. I’ve seen it, and it’s quite amazing how perfect the bite mark is.