Was I Too Rough On the Soul Surfer?
by Phil Boatwright

At the premiere of the dramatization of Bethany Hamilton’s extraordinary ordeal/comeback (my second viewing of the film), it hit me just how important Soul Surfer could be for moviegoers and those in need of a message about determination and faith.  Hamilton, who lost her arm to a shark attack at the age of thirteen, yet went on to become a world class surfer, has had a emotional impact on her generation, her resolve putting forth the homily, “If I can make it, so can you.” She openly declares her relationship with Jesus Christ and though somewhat distilled, that declaration is nonetheless a component of the film. So, did my fault-finding critique make me a detractor of her cause?
I stand by my review, which analyzed the picture for what it was, a “lite” version of an extraordinary life, but my reason for this second look at the film is to clarify that my candid comments weren’t meant to be a signal to stay away.  It would be a mistake for moviegoers not to see Soul Surfer. Here’s what you missed if you went to see Arthur, instead.
It’s rare to find a teen-geared film that doesn’t rely on crudity or titillation. What’s more, there are positive messages about family and faith, two ingredients often left out of movies aimed at a young demographic. With their fully realized portrayals, Anna-Sophia and Dennis Quaid bring honor to Bethany and dad. Director Sean McNamara has used CGI with standout results, using effects to aid the story, not become it. And on top of that, this film will undoubtedly begin a dialogue between believers and those who don’t understand what people like Bethany Hamilton have found, despite what they’ve lost.

Why then, you ask, did I find so much fault with the Soul Surfer movie?

Frankly, I feel the production lacks the soul-surfing dimension Bethany’s witness deserves. It’s a good movie. I was just hoping for a great one.

Think for a minute: a thirteen-year-old girl is resting on her surfboard, her arm dangling beneath the surface, when suddenly this creature out of a Steven Spielberg movie does the nightmarish, altering the youngster’s life. Later, in the hospital, seeing the pain and fear in their faces, Bethany is more concerned for her family. Wouldn’t you like to understand what makes up that kind of character? Is that character just about determination, or is there more to her makeup?

There are scenes showing the family in church and Dad Hamilton holding a Bible by his daughter’s recuperating bed, but knowing the Bible, actually being able to quote verses, helped sustain the family during their ordeal. One such verse, Jeremiah 29:11, remains in their daily prayer life: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Though that belief is indicated in the film, the producers were unable or unwilling to make Christ a central figure, leaving us with a film that is anemic, not bloodless, mind you, but not fully determined to state the significance of Christ in this family’s life. It seems more about Bethany’s determination than her centering Christ in her life.

I can’t honestly tell you Soul Surfer handles spirituality as effectively as Tender Mercies, Dead Man Walking, Babette’s Feast, or the recent Of Gods and Men. These were produced by filmmakers brave enough to delve into the dynamics of the human spirit, unafraid to tell the world that their characters believe in Christ Jesus. A few films over the years have brought people of faith to the screen without fear of losing the sought-after demographic audience.

Oh, the photo above is your humble film critic Phil Boatwright interviewing Bethany Hamilton at the NY premiere of Soul Surfer. Photo by Nancy Lovell, Lovell-Fairchild Communications

In Charles Laughton's 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a lowly gypsy girl enters a cathedral to pray. She is surrounded by finely dressed, haughty aristocracy, each praying for their individual desires. We are taken aback, moved, enlightened and perhaps convicted by this girl's selfless entreaties as she prays for others.

Places in the Heart, from 1984, has a literate script about a determined widow (Sally Field) bent on saving her farm during the 1930s Depression. It contains the greatest ending to a film this buff has ever seen. A repentant adulterer is finally forgiven when his wife, moved by the pastor's sermon, takes her husband's hand during the service, signifying the restoring of a relationship through Christ's love. Just as we put our hankies away after that moving moment, another symbolic healing occurs. I won't give that one away. Trust me, it's powerful!

1994’s Schindler’s List is the true story of a war profiteer affected by the mistreatment of the Jews during the Holocaust. Besides the historical value of this piece, it also presents a great example of redemption and features a spiritually uplifting ending. Though deserving of its R-rating for violence, sexual activity and language, it contains scenes that represent God's intervention and His power to heal relationships.

Without quoting John 3:16, these films give forthright portrayals of people who know the verse and base their lives upon it. I didn’t feel Soul Surfer lived up to its title. That said, despite its shortcomings, Soul Surfer was the best film in the theatres its opening weekend. It’s still the most significant film now in theaters. As I said, it is a good movie. If you missed it, don’t.

Soul Surfer: Anna Sophia Robb, Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid, Carrie Underwood. Tri-Star Pictures. Written by Sean McNamara & Deborah Schwartz & Douglas Schwartz & Michael Berk. Directed by Sean McNamara. Rated PG (a shark attack is portrayed, but the action does not become excessively gory; trauma, as the victim has to learn to deal with the loss of a limb; though the girls are always in revealing swimwear, the camera never lewdly ogles them).