On October 31st 2003, rising teen surf star Bethany Hamilton was out on the water with her close friend Alana Blanchard when their Hawaiian idyll, and her life, were shattered by a sudden attack from a tiger shark which saw her left arm severed at the shoulder. The subsequent rehabilitation of both her body and mind, and her determination to get back to her competitive surfing ways really is the stuff of movies, a tailor-made story that wraps up triumph over adversity, questions of personal faith, and a battle against a nemesis, all in a gutsy thirteen year old.
Her story is told in Soul Surfer, released in the UK today. The trouble with such an obvious cinematic exercise though is it’s easy to fall into the trap of cliché and sentimentality, which I realise is a harsh accusation to aim at a such an uplifting true story, but in the hands of Disney and the man behind TV’s ‘That’s so Raven’, Sean McNamara, you’re not going to get a gritty, bare-knuckled, and multi-angled exploration of sporting trauma.
Based on the book written by Hamilton, Sheryl Berk and David Brookwell, that’s not to say that Soul Surfer isn’t enjoyable, and to a certain demographic I’m sure it’ll be more so, but for those looking for keen psychological insight into Hamilton’s remarkable battle against the odds they’ll probably be disappointed.
Although Hamilton says she doesn’t particularly recall the attack, the moment and the immediate aftermath are pretty visceral, from the classic view from the depths, to the split-second bite, and the over-cranked, hand-held camera used as family friend Holt Blanchard (Kevin Sorbo) gets her from the water to the emergency room. And in an ironic moment Hamilton’s father Tom (Dennis Quaid) is at the very same hospital about to undergo knee surgery when the room he’s prepped in has to be used to save his own daughter.
Post-attack, Hamilton (in the guise of AnnaSophia Robb) is steely determined to get back on the waves, refusing to accept, or perhaps even acknowledge, the damage she’s suffered. But it’s when she finds herself facing unfamiliar failure, and Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) continuing a solo sponsorship deal which she should have shared, that the doubts and questions over what’s happened sink in.
And that’s where the question of demographics comes in as Soul Surfer, like Hamilton herself, wears its faith credentials on its sleeve, as she questions not just the vaguaries of fate but the actual reasoning of God himself. The simple desire for an answer to ‘why did this happen to me’ aimed at her Christian youth leader Sarah Hill (Carrie Underwood). Freed from competition, and perhaps surfing itself, through her belief that events have left her incapable she takes advantage of a humanitarian mission organised by Sarah to the devastation of tsunami struck Thailand. Seeing the complete destruction of people’s lives and their own fear of the water, which she manages to help them overcome, Hamilton becomes reinvigorated upon her return and re-enters at full throttle the world of competitive surfing, butting heads once again with the single-minded Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores Chung) in the run-up to the championships.
This unapologetic vein of faith-based recovery might raise a few eyebrows, and admittedly the opening gathering of the local community in its outdoors church and the slightly happy-clappy sing-song did create an auto-cynicism response, but it does ultimately come across as simply an honest biographical detail. It does seem willfully obtuse to heap any scorn on an integral, and passive, part of someone’s psychological make-up, and the film does manage to pay service to Hamilton’s faith without clogging up the overall story.
Much of that is due to Robb herself, who pretty much carries the entire story on her shoulders. She may be surrounded by moments of sermonising and schmaltz but she is a 5” 4’ rod of iron, playful, engaging, and made of sterner stuff than your average teen. Quaid and Helen Hunt as Hamilton’s parents are as reliably charismatic as you’d expect, and it makes a change to see two middle-aged parents who actually look middle-aged. They even look like they’re having fun out on the surf, but really its Robb’s show.
The surfing action is staged well, the moments of competition played out in a, pretty much, expected Hollywood fashion, and some of the surf photography is quite mesmeric. With Hamilton doing much of the stunt surfing herself there is the odd moment of CGI let down, but you don’t really notice amidst all the spray and bravado. It might even make you fancy dropping into a ten foot wave, and considering all the shark trauma, that’s an impressive feat in itself.
Soul Surfer opens in the UK today, Friday 23 September!