Coming so soon after 127 Hours proved how well told a rote tale of triumph over adversity can be, Soul Surfer feels especially ham-fisted and pandering. The story of teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton, who was back on her board just months after her left arm was bitten off by a shark, Soul Surfer is a movie of easily digestible truths and canned inspirational messages, taking every possible easy route though a story that could have used a few more thorns.
The weird thing is how entertaining and even moving Soul Surfer can be, not unlike the way The Blind Side was compulsively watchable despite its constant fog of mawkish sentimentality. The sun-dappled Hawaii settings help, as do the winning AnnaSophia Robb in the lead role and Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid, quite possibly relaxing with mai-tais between takes, as her loving parents. Until the whole shark bite incident Hamilton was living a pretty charmed life, occupying a beachside home with her parents and unruly brothers, being homeschooled so she could surf in the prime hours during the day, and entering competitions alongside her childhood best friend (Lorraine Nicholson). She's also very involved in her church, as the film makes clear from literally the first scene, where Bethany walks directly from the beach to an open-air church service.
After the shark bite-- which, to be kind, isn't exactly shot with Jaws-level suspense-- Bethany goes through the expected troubles, from anxiety that no boy would ever like her again to revulsion at the rubbery prosthetic arm provided to her in exchange for wearing it on television. The media are portrayed as invasive scoundrels who have to be run off the front lawn, but of course when Bethany starts receiving letters from amputees all over the world inspired by her story, there's no mention of how those people found out about her to begin with. And given Soul Surfer's less-than-sly Christian bent, there's a little bit of hand-wringing about what God's plan might be, guided partly by a youth group leader played by Carrie Underwood, who lets eye makeup and a single "concerned" face do most of the acting for her.
There's also rival surfer (Sonya Balmores) invented for the narrative (I suppose so that the shark isn't the only villain), and a mission trip to tsunami-ravaged Indonesia that awkwardly presents Bethany as not just a remarkably resilient young girl, but as a savior capable of helping an entire village overcome their very rational fear of the water. At the end of that visit Bethany actually says, in the cloying and unnecessary voiceover that pops up sporadically throughout the film, that "Love is bigger than any tidal wave." Yes, Soul Surfer is that kind of movie, but given Hamilton's ironclad Christian faith and the very nature of an inspirational sports story, there aren't too many other kinds of movie it could have been.
Sean McNamara, a veteran of children's television and the Bratz movie, over-lights and over-emphasizes every scene, apparently terrified that the audience be left to draw a single one of their own conclusions. And aside from the three professional leads there's some remarkably bad acting here, to the point that I wondered if some of these surfers were playing themselves (they weren't). But Soul Surfer's many imperfections still can't mask Hamilton's remarkable triumph and level-headed spirit, and the lean and effervescent Robb makes for an appealing teenage heroine who's touchingly devoted to her work and her family. It might be more interesting to see a documentary about Hamilton-- the closing credits feature footage of the real person, and they're captivating in a way the movie never is-- but Soul Surfer captures enough of her spirit to occasionally work well.