Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) tells us that as a child she spent more time wet than dry. She is the daughter of competitive surfers, home-schooled so that nothing would interfere with her training or her opportunity to go out into the water when the waves were good. And then one morning, when she was 13, a shark bit off her arm up to the shoulder. Determined that nothing could stop her from doing what she loved, she was back on her board a month later.
Two powerful forces kept her going, Bethany’s passion for surfing and her faith in God. This movie does a better job with the first than the second. The surfing scenes both before and after her injury are gorgeously portrayed, taking us inside the waves so that you will almost feel the spray on your face as the surfers rip around the swells. Writer-director Sean McNamara and the talented surfers on screen convey not just the experience of harnessing the power of the ocean but the thrilling rush of it as well. But he does not bring the same energy to the faith-based part of the film, which feels flat and more dutiful than heartfelt, like a youth group curriculum pulled off the Internet.
One problem is Carrie Underwood, a lovely performer who just does not have the acting skill she needs for Sarah Hill, the youth counselor who guides Bethany both before and after the attack. Perhaps because the film-makers are trying to please both faith and secular audiences, the faith-based elements of the story are thin and vague, reduced to a parable about not being able to see the big picture when you are too close and a trip to a very tidy settlement area in Thailand after the tsunami. The mention of Jeremiah 29:11 is not as significant as her doctor’s reassurance that “the things you are going to have to learn to do differently is extensive but the things you won’t be able to do is small.”
The real turning point is the scene where Bethany receives a prosthetic arm that does not give her the functionality she expected. That is a far greater blow than the original injury because it is only then that she must acknowledge that her loss is permanent. It is only then that she is able to have an honest re-evaluation of her faith, her priorities, and her options. In another sober moment, Bethany’s father (Dennis Quaid) silently matches the bite mark on Bethany’s surfboard with the enormous jaws of a captured shark, confirming that this was the beast that attacked his daughter.
Robb conveys Bethany’s resilience and athleticism. McNamara has a good sense for the rhythms of teen girl friendships (I still think that Bratz is underrated) and the scenes with Bethany and her friends capture the warmth and excitement of young girls on the brink of mastery of skills and the beginning of independence. But like its main character, it really comes alive when it catches the waves.
Parents should know that this is the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a competitive surfer whose arm was bitten off by a shark when she was 13. The attack is tastefully portrayed but harrowing. There are also tense and emotional scenes of her recovery and some depiction of her volunteer work in areas recovering from the tsunami.
Family discussion: What was the toughest moment for Bethany and why? What is as important to you as surfing is to Bethany? What did she learn from her trip to Thailand?
If you like this, try: “Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken,” another true story about a girl who has to come back from an injury, “Step Into Liquid,” a gorgeous documentary about surfing, and Hamilton’s book about her experiences, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board