Film review: Soul Surfer

It's only the shark that Duncan Wu feels for in a self-righteous true-life tale of triumph over tragedy

June 9, 2011

Soul Surfer

Directed by Sean McNamara

Released in the UK on 17 June

Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt

How can this be God's plan for me?" The questioner is Bethany Hamilton (played by AnnaSophia Robb) in Soul Surfer, which recounts the true story - or "inspiring true story" (as the film's website has it) - of how she had her arm bitten off by a tiger shark in an attack while surfing and subsequently returned to her favourite sport. Although early failure led her to give up, she persisted and soon became a one-armed professional surfer with the support of family and friends.

When something claims to be "inspiring", it had better live up to its promise, that's all I can say. Soul Surfer is so wide of the mark that one can but marvel at what on earth went wrong here. On the surface, the tale of a 13-year-old victim of a shark attack should have been excellent fodder for a medium hungry for sensation; this being America, her family recognised that fact from the outset and within months of the accident engaged a "media manager", who brokered the deal that has resulted in this film.

The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley! Part of the problem may be that the script is the work of no less than seven people, working slavishly from Bethany Hamilton's memoir. Which may explain why the film is so clueless when it comes to anything unrelated to its protagonist. For despite its fidelity to the truth, its characters are weirdly lacking in depth: neither of Bethany's parents (played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) do, say or think anything that does not refer to their daughter; neither has any past history; and neither of her brothers seems to have a job or even friends.

In fact, no member of her immediate family has an autonomous existence at all. Even Bethany lives solely within the claustrophobic constraints of her "inspiring true story"; besides her trip to Thailand to rescue victims of the tsunami, she has no engagement with the world.

Bethany's life-saving mission is emblematic of everything that has gone so painfully wrong with this film. Doubtless the real-life Bethany Hamilton did go to Thailand and help people, but the all-too-short invocation of the disaster solely to explain, in a few minutes, how she "gained new perspective" on her love of surfing leaves a very sour taste in one's mouth.

Which is also how one feels about the use of religion in this movie: its answer to the question with which this review begins appears to be that Bethany's unfortunate encounter with the shark was divinely ordained, and a necessary step in her ultimate triumph. All of which seems opportunistic, as well as being an insult to the shark.

Not that he deserves it; the shark underplays his role to perfection. His table manners are excellent - no triumphant waving around of detached limbs, no chomping and no visible biting, thus helping the film to a PG rating in the US, making it suitable for children. He upstages even Quaid, one of the most interesting American actors in contemporary film, whose only function in Soul Surfer is to look alternately anguished and relieved.

There are two further problems with this film and then I'll shut up about it. The first is that surfing is second only to golf in being the most boring spectator sport ever invented, and no amount of computer-generated imagery is going to change that.

Second, the film suffers from a structural problem by placing Bethany's encounter with the shark within its first 15 minutes; from then on, the narrative can go only in one direction. Other than her understandable dismay at having given a shark its lunch, there's little for Bethany to fight against.

Soul Surfer is fascistic in its smug self-righteousness, and nauseating with it. What hopeless lapse of taste can have led its producers to give Bethany a concluding voice-over in which she says: "I wouldn't change what happened because then I wouldn't have this chance to embrace all these people"?

It makes me feel sorry for the shark; what about his side of the story? I suppose it must be terrible to be deprived of one's hobby (along with one's arm), and this film may provide a harmless source of consolation for fellow sufferers. Everyone else should keep their distance.

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