April 8, 2011 in Features

Inspiring story lost in move to big screen

Christy Lemire Associated Press

Dennis Quaid, AnnaSophia Robb and Helen Hunt in “Soul Surfer.”
(Full-size photo)

Watching “Soul Surfer,” the story of Bethany Hamilton’s comeback after a shark attack, makes you long for a vivid documentary on the subject instead – preferably one of those excellent “30 for 30” offerings from ESPN.

Hamilton’s tale is inspiring. In 2003, when she was just 13 years old, she lost her left arm to a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing near her Hawaiian home.

An up-and-comer in the sport, she wanted to get back on her board as soon as possible. A month later, she was in the water again. Now, at 21, she continues to compete professionally.

“Soul Surfer” takes that story of complex emotions, determination and faith and turns it into overly simplistic mush.

Director and co-writer Sean McNamara’s film is an uncomfortable combination of pat, feel-good platitudes, two-dimensional characters, cheesy special effects and generically idyllic scenery.

AnnaSophia Robb, who stars as Hamilton, cuts through some of the gooey tedium with a naturally athletic presence and no-nonsense attitude (and the star of “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Race to Witch Mountain” does much of her own surfing).

But “Soul Surfer” consistently tries to make her transformation as easily digestible as possible. This is especially true when it comes to Hamilton’s faith.

In real life, she and her family are devout Christians who relied heavily on their belief in God to provide strength during this traumatic time.

“Soul Surfer” dips its toe in religion just enough to please the faith-based audience it targets, but not so much as to potentially alienate everyone else. It’s a cynical and calculated approach that’s actually rather offensive.

The attack itself is vaguely thrilling, with Hamilton’s idealized parents (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, miscast as a lifelong, laid-back surfer chick) rushing to her side. But afterward, the digital effects depicting the severed limb are distractingly inconsistent.

From there, everything is a foregone conclusion: Hamilton will return to surfing, she’ll compete again, she’ll run into her (fictionalized) nemesis and, regardless of the outcome, she’ll feel like a winner.

A life-altering event shouldn’t seem so easy.

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