‘Soul Surfer’ sunk by lack of subtlety

"Soul Surfer" aims for the sophisticated true-life uplift of "127 Hours," but plays more like "Gigdet Loses an Arm."

AnnaSophia Robb plays Bethany Hamilton, a competitive teen surfer who was mauled by a shark near her Hawaiian home, then battled back to surf, compete and live fearlessly with one arm.

It's a good framework for an inspirational drama, but Robb struggles throughout with an earnest, homogenized script (credited to a dangerously large number of writers) that gives her only obvious notes to play, and seems pitched to a very young, or very slow-on-the-uptake, audience.

Too bad, because there is potential in "Soul Surfer" for something more complex - it surfaces in early scenes that show young Bethany, before her accident, already starting to question her super-focused commitment to her sport.

Bethany's churchgoing parents (Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt) pray before every meal, and every Sunday take their daughter to church, where a pastor (Carrie Underwood) organizes relief missions to troubled or impoverished regions of the world.

When Bethany skips a mission trip to Mexico to compete in a surfing tournament, she detects quiet notes of disapproval from her folks, who are otherwise keen to nurture her surfing dreams.

This is one of the movie's few nods to subtlety, soon abandoned when Bethany is attacked by the shark, and "Surfer" starts going through the motions of the athlete-overcomes-obstacle story line.

Obstacle No. 1: Bethany's understandable cloud of self-pity, which finally lifts when she attends a church mission to help victims of a tsunami in Indonesia.

Bethany sees the suffering around her and is moved to see her own problems as comparatively trivial. Director Sean McNamara does not seem to trust the audience to absorb this lesson, leading to a moment wherein Bethany essentially says, "Gosh, this really puts things in perspective."

"Soul Surfer" is often tidy and trite in this manner, and it has a weakness for the overscripted line, as when Bethany explains the satisfaction she takes in knowing her surfing career serves as an example to handicapped people the world over.

"I can embrace more people with one arm than I ever could with two."


I don't know what a shark attack feels like, but it can't be any more painful than that line.

Soul Surfer

Directed by Sean McNamara. With Carrie Underwood, Ross Thomas, Lorraine Nicholson, Craig T. Nelson, Kevin Sorbo, AnnaSophia Robb, Jeremy Sumpter, David Chokachi, Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid. Distributed by TriStar/FilmDistrict.

Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material).