Riding the Wave, by Tyler Smith
For a significant portion of Soul Surfer, I felt that Bethany Hamilton’s story would be most powerful as a documentary. The clunky writing and overly earnest tone of the film made everything feel so safe and cheerful, at a time when Bethany was no doubt feeling pretty lost and desperate. The goofy reaction shots of the Hamiltons’ dog- among other cutesy touches- betrayed the filmmaker’s origins as a kid’s television director. And the incorporation of Bethany’s Christian faith seemed somehow out of place, as though the actors didn’t feel comfortable being so overt about it all. I remember thinking that an extended interview would have done a better job of exploring Bethany’s plight and how she got through it, mixed with news stories and some authentic surfing footage.
I guess I felt that Bethany’s story deserved more than the Disney Channel treatment.
Then, as the film went on, things started to change for me. I found myself actually pretty invested in Bethany’s situation. I felt like I was part of the family, rooting for her while simultaneously questioning what their role would be in her recovery. As the climactic surf competition arrives, I was surprised to discover that I was completely engaged. I really cared about these people.
The clunky dialogue, the overly inspiring tone, the predictability; none of it seemed to matter anymore. The only thing that mattered was Bethany Hamilton and her brave and stubborn attempt to overcome a debilitating injury. By the time the film was over and we were finally treated to actual footage of Bethany surfing, doing interviews, visiting war vets, it just seemed like the cherry on top. I no longer felt like the producers had blown an opportunity to make a powerful documentary. Instead, I felt that they had succeeded in making a flawed but solid narrative film.
I was wondering what made the difference. Was it the strong performances by stars AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, and Helen Hunt? Maybe. Certainly with dialogue like that, you need actors that are able to transcend it and find an inner core of humanity. But that wasn’t it. Was it the beautiful photography of a gorgeous location (the film takes place primarily in Hawaii)? Possibly, but a film’s good looks can take it only so far.
No, what really made the difference with Soul Surfer was a sense of immediacy. The director, cinematographer, and editor do such a thorough job of recreating the thrill of being in the open ocean- each new wave another opportunity for greatness- that we really feel like we’re there. When Bethany is first attempting to compete after the loss of her arm, the director does not hold back. Bethany struggles to climb atop her surf board as wave after wave crashes on top of her, pushing her back under water. She keeps trying and, sure enough, keeps failing. By the time she is rescued, we are relieved. We’re starting to feel a bit out of breath ourselves.
The same can be said of the surfing sequences. The director, so awkward when staging dialogue sequences, displays a fairly sure hand when it comes to knowing when to show us Bethany’s point of view and when to pull back to those on the beach. Only then can we truly behold exactly how amazing her abilities are.
Perhaps the scene I most admire is the scene in which Bethany first loses her arm. It is just another day. She and several others are out at the beach, having fun. We know what’s coming; anybody aware of Bethany’s story knows that this probably isn’t just another surfing scene. And yet the director does not telegraph the coming tragedy. This is, after all, not Jaws. We are allowed about two seconds of the shark’s POV as it approaches Bethany’s board, after which we cut to the surface and see, in the blink of an eye, the shark strike. It’s over in a moment and we’re not really even sure of what happened. The characters themselves aren’t really sure. The only thing they know is that the water is full of blood and Bethany is screaming.
As everybody struggles to get her to shore, it’s absolute chaos. Bethany’s arm is gone and she’s losing blood fast. Meanwhile, there’s still a shark swimming around and it could possibly come back; not just for Bethany, but for any of them. That tension is palpable and the director stretches the sequence out longer than one would immediately expect. As Bethany is rushed to the hospital, positively white from blood loss, we forget- if only for a moment- that we know that she doesn’t die.
Scenes like this are what elevate Soul Surfer above its Hallmark Channel trappings. While the script could have used a lot of work and the director could have been a bit more subtle in his treatment of the characters (yes, the morally questionable rival surfer finally admits a grudging respect of Bethany), I find myself unable to completely write it off.
Don’t get me wrong; there is a lot of bad in this film. While the film’s major players all get a pretty good handle on the material, some of the less experienced actors fall a little flat. And, as one would probably expect, the much ballyhooed acting debut of Carrie Underwood is less than stellar.
There are whole scenes that seem just a little too perfect. While I do applaud the director’s ability to create a genuine familiar dynamic within Bethany’s family, it’s all just too serene. Everybody is blond, perfectly tanned, with toned bodies.
Bethany’s faith is also handled a little too neatly. She has a couple moments of doubt, wondering why God would allow something like this to happen. These moments- which would normally be treated as heavy introverted questioning- feel somewhat perfunctory, as if they are there only to provide the obligatory conflict on the way to Bethany’s eventual affirmation. Spiritual doubt in the face of adversity is a major hurtle to overcome; the filmmakers treat it as a slight misstep in an otherwise pristine spiritual journey.
Because of the awkward way in which the director deals with vital issues like this, I can’t completely recommend the movie. More cynical viewers will have absolutely no patience for this type of film. However, the inherent power of Bethany’s story, along with some of the acting and the beautifully shot surfing sequences, makes Soul Surfer a film that may be easily dismissed, but is worth a second look.