When I arrived at a small, well-appointed theater in the basement of a stately building on Sony Picture’s sprawling Culver City campus to see a sneak peek of Soul Surfer, the Hollywood feature film about Bethany Hamilton’s incredible life story starring AnnaSophia Robb, Helen Hunt, and Dennis Quaid (not to mention Rip Curl’s Dylan Slater), I have to admit, I didn’t have high hopes for it.
I’m a cynic, but not without reason. I saw North Shore and Blue Crush in theaters, I’ve watched Big Wednesday on cable two dozen times, and as a kid I sat through more Gidget reruns than I should admit to publicly. What I’m getting at is I’m pretty sure I’ve seen just about every film or TV show featuring surfing that’s ever come out of Hollywood, and with the exception of Sean Penn’s iconic Jeff Spicoli, I’m always left cringing at the clunky dialog, repetitive clichés, pathetic portrayals of the actual act of riding a surfboard, and the stereotyping of surfers as one-dimensional shaka-throwers with tans as deep as the Pacific.
But when the lights went down, the film rolled, and I got used to stunning Hollywood superstars portraying people I’ve met, something unexpected happened…I started to enjoy it. The settings are spot on, with many scenes shot on the beaches of Kauai and Oahu, not in front of green screens or in locations that surfers would instinctively know aren’t Hawaiian. The surfing is possibly the best yet in a Hollywood surf film, with the real-life Bethany and Alana Blanchard doing all the surfing for their characters, and, frankly, ripping. But the real reason I found myself engaged is Bethany’s story. Attacked by a shark at a remote Kauai surf spot, she lost her entire left arm and nearly died in the process, but the shy kid has gone on to have a legit pro surf career despite her massive physical impairment, and, in the process, she’s inspired uncountable people struggling against cruel twists of fate. It seems Bethany’s story is so powerful that not even Hollywood can make it cheesy.
Sure, I felt myself blushing when Dennis Quaid (as Tom Hamilton, Bethany’s dad) is giving surf instruction, or when her toothpaste-commercial-perfect family recites passages from the Bible to each other in casual conversation, but when the credits roll alongside real footage of Bethany’s first surf after losing her arm, of her family group-hugging, and of Bethany charging Teahupoo and Jaws, even a proud cynic got a bit misty.
Soul Surfer opens in theaters today.