Besides being a surfer term describing “a talented surfer who surfs for the sheer pleasure of it,” Soul Surfer is also the new TriStar Pictures biopic about Bethany Hamilton, a young woman who lost her arm in a shark attack and fought back to become the surfing champion she had always wanted to be.
Like other recent inspirational or underdog movies that have come before (The Blind Side, Secretariat), Soul Surfer has all of the ingredients to be a hit with the moviegoing family set. Faith, hope and a whole lot of familial love are here, plus the plucky spirit of a young protagonist who’s definitely not a quitter. With fast-paced, surfing action sequences and moving one-on-one moments, it will surely keep the attention span and warm the hearts of kids and parents alike.
Over the next few days, Hollywood will surely watch closely to see if the faith-based market (to whom Soul Surfer has been heavily promoted—including special preview screenings and accompanying Bible study and sermon resources made available for ministry leaders, churches or small groups) will show some support with their wallets when this weekend’s box office receipts are tallied.
And going on just story alone, who wouldn’t want to see this film? Back in October 2003, when the 14-foot tiger shark attacked and took her arm with it off the coast of Kauai, Bethany was just a young teen in the beginning stages of her surfing career. Soul Surfer opens right before that tragic event by way of a church service (singing “Blessed Be Your Name”) which lets the filmgoer know very quickly that Bethany (portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb) and the Hamiltons (Helen Hunt as Mom, Dennis Quaid as Dad and two older brothers) are a close-knit, church-going type of family.
In fact, the spiritual beliefs of the Hamilton family are very much on display throughout the entire production. Jeremiah 29:11 is quoted in full by Bethany’s youth group leader (portrayed by Carrie Underwood), complete with Scripture reference. Dad and Bethany recite Philippians 4:13together twice (“You can do all things through him who gives you strength …”) after the attack when the young surfer wonders how she will surf again with just one arm. At the dinner table, when Bethany first arrives home from the hospital and is still recovering, the family gathers together to pray. And in another moving scene, Bethany cries out to her youth group leader that she doesn’t understand how losing her arm could be God’s plan for her. The leader lovingly joins Bethany in not understanding (how refreshing!) and gives no definitive answers, but assures the teen that she has to believe God will bring something good out of this horrible loss.
And something good, he most surely does.
Those who know the story from news coverage will remember that Bethany got back on the board a little over a year after the attack with a one-armed surfing technique that returned her to competition and the spotlight.
Now 21 years old, the real-life surfing phenom is ranked among the top pro female surfers in the world. She wrote the book, Soul Surfer, upon which the film is based and also penned a devotional book for young girls (Rise Above), as well as an advice book (Ask Bethany) in which she answers questions from fans and shares from experiences and lessons learned in her own life journey.
Last spring, Bethany also guested on ABC’s popular Extreme Makeover: Home Edition series when she surprised a family with four children (three have special needs, and of those two are also amputees) when they visited Hawaii, while their home back in Texas was being renovated by the Extreme Makeover crew.
It's clear that Bethany’s heroism and fighting spirit have been a powerful example to people from all walks of life since her life changed so drastically nearly eight years ago.
But thankfully her struggle to keep pushing forward is captured realistically in this film, as in the scene when Bethany returns home after doing poorly in her first surfing competition since losing her arm. It’s a turning point, for sure, and the young surfer could have easily given up. She’s dejected and discouraged. But when she finds buckets of fan mail littering her family’s home, she is completely amazed at the outpouring of support and encouragement. And she wonders aloud why everyone wants her to keep competing. Why would they even care? “Because you tried,” her mom wisely answers.
From there on out, it’s a full-family effort to help Bethany perfect her new way of surfing. Everyone gets involved in the training process of one-arm pushups, sit-ups, running and weight-lifting. Her dad also develops a special rope loop on the underside of her surfing board that will allow Bethany to grip tightly as she propels herself underwater before breaking through to try and catch a wave.
Toward film’s end, the audience sees the results of Bethany’s renewed efforts (and attitude) as she competes again in another surfing competition. SPOILER ALERT: She doesn’t win, but when asked by reporters after the competition is done if she would go back and rewrite the shark attack happening in her life, she simply answers that she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I wouldn’t have this chance to embrace more people than I ever could with two arms,” she further explains.
It’s an amazing perspective from someone still young in years, but one that is certainly evident of a maturity in faith and strength that can only come from above.
Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid, Carrie Underwood and Kevin Sorbo, Soul Surfer releases wide in theaters today, April 8, 2011. Click here to read Crosswalk’s full review of Soul Surfer or watch the official trailer below.
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