In 2003, Hawaiian teenager Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a shark attack while surfing. The accident made headlines around the world. Determined to keep surfing, Bethany helps tsunami victims in Thailand and continues her competitive career.

Touching true story overwhelmed by heavy-handed religious dogma.

The tabloids went wild when Hawaiian teenager Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack in October 2003. At first, it was with the lurid details of how the four-metre tiger shark took her limb, just below her armpit. The coverage then refocussed on her truly astonishing return to competitive surfing status.

Little mention was made of Bethany’s deep spirituality: her bible study regime; her faith in 'God’s greater plan’; and her journey to a Tsunami-ravaged Phuket to volunteer her time and prayers. That imbalance has been entirely redressed with Sean McNamara’s Soul Surfer, a film so steeped in the positivity of religious adherence that it’s possible to forget that it’s about a girl who nearly gets eaten to death by a big fish.

McNamara (a veteran of tween fare such as Bratz and Raise Your Voice) follows the lead set by the Sandra Bullock hit The Blind Side (2009) in that regardless of life’s hardships, good things will happen to good people (or, more accurately, good Christian people who love sports).

One cannot overstate how 'good’ everyone is in Soul Surfer. AnnaSophia Robb portrays Bethany as a young woman who struggles internally but externally, is a rock. The film would have us believe Bethany was up and out of hospital in no time, as though recovering from a wild animal attack was like day surgery, such is the effortless way she integrates herself back into her previous life.

Stiffening up in this role after natural turns in Bridge to Terabithia (2007) and Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), Robb is allowed one 'actors’ moment’ of melodramatic self-pity. The scene borrows heavily from Tom Cruise’s Vietnam vet paraplegic Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), in which Cruise articulates the horrible disconnect between mind, body and the able world. McNamara’s staging of Hamilton’s emotional breakdown in which she, like Kovic, pleads 'Who is going to love me?", feels shallow and calculated; given that her world has been all 'tight family bonds’ and 'community adoration’, her shift in character seems incongruous.

As mum Cheri, a lean Helen Hunt exudes brow-furrowing worry and perky admiration for Betheny and her two goofy, lovable brothers (Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu); Dennis Quaid as dad Tom is the epitome of upbeat parental energy. All other support characters exist entirely to cheer for Betheny in her quest to overcome her affliction, especially country-gospel star Carrie Underwood as church leader Sarah. (The film opens on her leading a fellowship sing-a-long.) It is Underwood’s film debut and she comes up short in key scenes, though one imagines that even Meryl Streep might have struggled with the saccharine dialogue and cloying sentimentality. The Phuket sequence, in which a faithfully-rejuvenated Betheny leads cheering villagers back into the ocean for the first time post-tsunami, is a bit much. ('Love is bigger than any tidal wave or fear," she philosophises.)

Soul Surfer
touches upon but never really has any answers why The Lord would work in this mysterious way. There are several references to Jeremiah 29:11 – 'For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" – and a closing credit montage of the real-life Hamilton helping others hints at how all involved interpreted God’s intent. That seems to be enough for McNamara, who by then has put all his third act faith into a feel-good surf contest finale steeped in the metaphoric embrace of the spirituality of the sea.

Though he earns points for not dwelling on gruesome details (the attack is handled far more succinctly than Danny Boyle’s armless epic 127 Hours), the heavy-handedness McNamara applies to his heavenly message ultimately consumes the Bethany Hamilton story. Soul Surfer should have played equally well to the secular masses as to the converted. Hamilton’s story is a human one with spiritual underpinnings, yet to the detriment of the inherent drama, the filmmaker tells it the other way around.

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1 hour 46 min
In Cinemas 02 June 2011,
Wed, 10/05/2011 - 11