Easter Sunday seemed like a good time to check out Soul Surfer at the local cineplex. Before I spend a few minutes wandering in the wilderness of my own messy thought process, let me say up front that Soul Surfer is a good movie. It works. Remember I said that.
Now on to the wandering…
As a Christian, an actor, a lover of film and one who has seen more than my share of exceedingly BAD films made by well meaning people with a sincere desire to ‘spread the word’, I admit I have some qualms every time I take a seat to watch a film publicized as a ‘Christian Film’…whatever that is…or a film heavily marketed to the churchified.
Far too often, in the past, that meant that the audience was in for a heavy handed presentation with at best marginal tech work, amateurish acting and directing and with writing that cared much less about telling a story than it did about presenting an extended four spiritual laws tract in a painfully slow and obvious fashion. (There have been some grand exceptions that were heavily marketed to church groups such as Chariots of Fire, The Mission, The Passion of The Christ and a few others but they are few and far between.)
So it was that I purchased a ticket to Soul Surfer after reading many positive comments online. Frankly I didn’t trust all of the comments on Facebook and other sites because a lot of them were clearly from people with a strong Christian viewpoint. What’s not to trust? Christians, God bless ‘em, have long supported film and video projects that for lack of a better word,
suck stink suck. Put your hand over your face bad sound, bad camera work, bad lighting, bad acting, bad directing and most of all, bad writing.
What got my attention and got me to part with my hard earned cash for Soul Surfer? The STORY. The producers and distributors have done a good job of making sure the public knows at least three things about this film: 1. It’s about a pretty blonde surfer who 2. loses an arm to a shark attack and 3. lived to deal with it. And they’ve done that in a way that hasn’t been cheesy or exploitative. What I knew of the story was so strong that I was willing to risk being disappointed once again. I also knew that the cast was filled with solid professionals whose past work I have enjoyed, even admired.
With that bit of background so you can see where this audience member was coming from when the theater lights dimmed, here’s what I thought of Soul Surfer.
Relax, the word ‘suck’ doesn’t appear below.
Soul Surfer benefits greatly from being a true story and really, a sports story. Sports stories are usually about triumph and redemption or triumph and tragedy. Quite apart from any aspect of faith or religion Bethany Hamilton’s personal story is compelling, dramatic. Doesn’t get much better for the story than to have a pretty, young, talented athlete on the cusp of stardom getting attacked by a shark, does it?
How could you not root for this girl? The true story elements of Bethany Hamilton’s prowess on a surfboard, the shark attack and her life afterward are pretty well known. This is strong stuff for a film story and in a way it was incumbent on the filmmakers not to screw it up. Not to worry, they did a LOT better than ‘not screw it up’.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. The filmmakers almost lost me early in the film when I thought they were going to go all ‘churchy’ on me, in a scene that introduces Carrie Underwood as Bethany’s church youth director. That was the one ‘on the nose’ moment when I winced a bit. The scene was thankfully brief. It sets up something for later in the film but it’s the one really weak scene in the film, in my opinion. But then a lot of the traditionally targeted audience will likely think there was way too little church stuff and way too much skin showing in all the surfing scenes.
The family’s faith was clear, to me at least, in more subtle ways throughout the film. For instance, Dad sitting and reading the Bible while Bethany sleeps resonated. No comment needed.
For the most part, I thought the filmmakers did what they should do: TRUST THE STORY. I did lose myself in the story and credit the solid direction by Sean McNamara and terrific acting all around, esp. the leads, AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt with strong support from Kevin Sorbo.
Quaid and Hunt really grounded the family dynamic in a way that was perfectly truthful and helps solidify Soul Surfer as a mainstream movie.
There was a wonderful scene in the hospital cafeteria. If you’ve seen Soul Surfer you might be surprised that I point out that scene, because it doesn’t appear to be a major scene in the film. But it’s a beautiful piece of writing, acting and filmmaking. What happens? Basically, the family has a near blowup in a public setting. What a great scene, showing a REAL family under pressure in a time of crisis. The tension, fear, uncertainty of the future were all there and it was all truthful. I have no idea if that scene ever really happened, but it was absolutely TRUTHFUL as it played out on screen. The Hamilton’s didn’t sit and quote Bible verses to each other or even join hands and pray, they acted like most people, even most Christians might act under similar circumstances. That kind of truth adds so much depth and texture to the film, it takes the audience deeper into the story. Kudos to director McNamara and his outstanding cast.
Soul Surfer thankfully rises well above the old ‘Christian movie’ paradigm. The tech credits are all first rate, the surfing scenes were very well executed, particularly considering the tech challenges of a one armed surfer. The actors are terrific and most importantly, the story never gets lost in the telling.
Non-believers can relax. You’re not going to get hit over the head with a Bible. But you will understand the source of strength for this remarkable family. Soul Surfer deserves an audience of people who just want to see a good film, believers and non-believers alike. That seems to be happening.
According to Box Office Mojo, studio estimates for this weekend (April 22-24, 2011) have Soul Surfer holding at No. 7, down from No. 5 last week. Box office is pushing $29 million on a reported budget of $18 million. The film is playing on 2240 screens, up 26 screens from last week.