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Review: Soul Surfer

A look at Hollywood’s Latest “Surf Film”

| posted on January 07, 2011

Bethany Hamilton has overcome incredible obstacles to become one of the best up-and-coming female surfers today. Photo: Sparkes

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.

  • Peter

    Come on man. Big Wednesday is legit.
    It might have some moments you could class as cheesy but it is a great movie.

  • Ed Gonzalez

    I thought “Surf’s Up” was awesome and I’m down with Big Wednesday, but all the others from North Shore, Point Break, Blue Crush to In Gods hands sucked!!!! I’ll probably end up seeing Soul Surfer with my wife cuz she’s a huge Bethany fan!

  • http://www.noahhamiltonphoto.com Noah Hamilton

    Yeah Joel, your the man. thanks for giving an honest review of the film. It feels good to know that we made a film that surfers could be proud of. Anyway super stoked after reading your review. Our family just really wanted to be able to hold are heads high and know we made the surf community proud. It was a long journey making this film, but for Bethany being the reluctant celebrity the journey is just getting started. Hope to meet you some day Joel. Aloha, Noah

  • Alleycat

    Thanx for the review! You made me want to give the movie a chance. I think Anna Sophia Robb is a very talented young girl. I also am a fan of Carrie Underwood’s music, so I am a little intrigued to see how she will do as an actress. Hope she does well. Cannot wait for this movie!

  • steve siegrist

    as life long surfer its been a long time comeing,it seems that holywood cant get it right.after reading your review i cant wait to see this movie,iam friends with the hamiltons and blanchards,they are great people and real surfers.lilstever………

  • Pingback: Review: Soul Surfer the Movie « The CR Studio Blog

  • Kevin Caldwell

    Opening day, Joel, and I just saw the movie with my son and daughter. You were very right about Hollywood finally getting the surfing down, and even more spot on when you said even they couldn’t make it cheesy. Bethany’s story truly is an inspiration to all who listen closely, and after seven years it’s obvious what God’s plan (Jeremiah 29:11)) is for this remarkable young woman.

  • Alek

    I want to see it. Enjoyed how you wrote this and seems like a really cool film both inspirational and enjoyable.
    Thanks for the review.
    (in your list of surf movies, you forgot in God’s Hands..its pretty easy to forget that one)

  • hank heitmann

    Joel I guess you are too young to remember the time before Sean Penn provided a brainless stereotype of surfers to the non surfing public that didn’t previously exist.Hope the film is good but hard to take the word from someone who thinks that there is anything profound about Jeff Spicolli.

    • Ross

      Hank I have one of your surf boards please contact me @ go2guysauction.com

  • Heather

    Amazing movie. I love that they portrayed the reason that Bethany lived through the attack and was able to surf again…Jesus Christ. Very entertaining movie and perfect for all ages. What an inspiration Bethany is!

  • marlene

    I loved the movie and hope that everyone sees it . I read her story a few years ago when my elbow was crushed in a bad fall,I was recovering and I still have nerve damage and still will never be able to bend it again. You see her struggle with her feet to get stuff together she never gives up no matter what. We could all learn from this beautiful young lady she is a mentor to all, give it a chance go see it it will change your life and you will be grateful for all you have, no matter what the circumstance is. Once you lose a limb, you cannot do simple tasks, like wash your face, with two hands or wash your hair, or even sorry (pick your nose) tie your shoes, balance is off and even worse you are not a level playing field with anyone of your peers again. I understood what she went through and goes through each day. So who cares that it is a Hollywood movie at the end of the movie you see her struggle to do things that you can do without effort,. G*d Bless that girl and her family and the community for supporting her during that very difficult time she will have many challenges,, however she will over come them, to become the best she can be,, can you say that for yourself?

  • margaret

    the movie was thrilling the shark poped out of now were

  • http://facebook ashlee

    i loved the movie and it tought me to never give up on my dreams

  • ashley hufnagel

    You should watch the movie I am only 12 and I get all the grown up jokes

  • http://www.surfmag.com ANNAH

    i love the movie it was a amazing but for you when you got your arm bit off …bad.sorry.u r amazing.i fell bad for u.NEVER GIVE UP ON YOUR DREAMS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!