In case you are only aware of the “hits”, the movie Soul Surfer is a “sleeper”: a small movie that becomes widely seen by word of mouth recommendations.

I usually dislike surfer movies (e.g. Blue Crush) but I do like the photography of the ocean in them, so I watched this one.

The good news: some good surfer scenes, and good photography of the beauty of the waves. The better news: it does have a plot. The best news: it doesn’t push the “crip overcomes handicap” meme too much.

The bad news: The story, which has a potential for drama and depth, is about as bland as a movie on the Hallmark channel.

The true story is based on the life of Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack at age 13, but overcame her handicap to again become a competitive surfer.

What is interesting is not the story per se, but the fact that Hollywood made it in an attempt to outreach to the large “Christian” audience who made “The Blind Side” such a hit. Apparantly, Bethany and her family were Christians (imagine that) not drug taking hedonistic surfers that one expects in such movies.

For this reason, the film was considered controversial because of it’s “Christian” element, and the attempt of Hollywood to “tone it down” to “appeal to mainstream audiences”, made the family have to fight to keep them in:

From Wikipedia:

Prior to the film’s commercial release, it was screened for religious leaders. A scene in which Dennis Quaid’s character reads the Bible in the hospital at his daughter’s bedside had the words “Holy Bible” digitally removed from the cover. … Another debatable scene was one in which Carrie Underwood’s character, a church youth leader, quotes Christian scripture. While those involved with the film were fine with the verse, they did not want the scene to explicitly indicate that its origin was the Bible.

If this was true, it says more about the mentality of Hollywood than of the movie audience.

Ironically, the real problem for me was not the “christian” scenes as such, but that in this movie, the scenes didn’t fit into the plot. One gets the impression that the “Christian” scenes were plopped into the plot in a disjointed manner to appeal to the “Christian” audience, not as part of the character or plot development.

For example, take the scene where her father reads the bible at her bedside. Reality check:  in such cases, you might not get a quiet bible reading, you would probably get the local teenaged prayer group there holding a revival service.

Another problem: one reason people turn to religion is to find answers when confronted with suffering and loss; alas, in the movie we aren’t given any context to see why a magic book makes any difference.

The movie cries out for a scene (which is common enough in real life) where the injured girl and her family is helped by someone who comforts her by relating their own trial of suffering, and how he or she learned how hard it is to struggle to hold to that faith in times of darkness. To paraphrase Peter: when we have suffered ourselves, it enables us to reach out to others who are suffering. Doctor Albert Schweitzer called this the “Fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain”.

The psychological and physical recovery from the accident is given little emphasis. Usually there is a time of rehab, learning to do “little things” to cope, including the use of an artificial arm. Here we only see a scene where she rejects a fancy normal looking replacement arm because it won’t help her surf. What, no fitting for a intermediate prosthesis to help her in simple activities of daily living?

Another scene I disliked is when she decides to go with her church’s youth group to help after the tsunami in Thailand. Trips by youth groups to help after tornadoes, floods, Katrina, or to local churches overseas are common, and indeed Bethany found inspiration to get over feeling sorry for herself when confronting the devastation.

However, I grit my teeth at this point, because the “worst” scene in the movie was when she decided to cheer up a local orphan by taking him out on a surf board.

Uh, where did that surf board come from? And why would a young local boy know anything about surfing, except maybe it was a strange custom for all those strange acting rich European tourists…

The remainder of the movie was Betthany going back to surf competitively. Lots of nice scenes.

Indeed, the scenes are all “nice”. Nice people, nice beaches, and no big problems. No “Rocky Balboa” theme here: one gets the idea that losing one’s arm is just a minor inconvenience to fulfillment of the American dream of being a famous surfing champion.

The Blandness of the plot makes this a movie for all the family. No blood, not nudity, no dirty language, no nasty people.

The cinemetography however makes up for the plot. Turn off the sound and enjoy.

I give it a two out of five stars.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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