Soul Surfer

Since completing the first draft of my book, I’ve been busy trying to catch up with everything else. I am preparing for several upcoming Faith & Film Nights, as well as creating some new online content for the readers of my last published book, See Yourself Through God’s Eyes. I’m also delighted to be presenting a workshop on the Theology and Spirituality of Communication at an upcoming Media Literacy Education course being offered by our own Pauline Center for Media Studies, with the Archdiocese of Boston.

That’s not an excuse for why I haven’t been blogging, but an explanation (and update on what I’ve been doing).

This week I took a break from catching up and went to see Soul Surfer, the film based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a talented young surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack at age thirteen, and how she and her family coped with the tragedy.

Snapshot
Soul Surfer is a straight, uncomplicated story that fits solidly into the cinematic sports genre for a younger audience, with the “team” being Bethany’s family and friends who support her. Sequences of amazing surfing–at least to this non-expert–intentionally dazzle, as they should. Refreshingly, the Hamiltons are not a family in crisis, and the close family interactions give the film both its most entertaining moments and an endearing wholesomeness. True to its name, Soul Surfer takes a lighter approach, skimming over the surface of character and story, rather than plunging more deeply. But this style balances the harrowing tragedy which the film fearlessly takes on. Ultimately, as a film, Soul Surfer aptly matches Bethany’s inspiring courage in the waves.

Strengths
The big performances of this film make it a joy to watch. AnnaSophia Robb has matured as an actress and convincingly plays Bethany. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt are the parents who make their strong and healthy marriage not only credible but enviable. The fact that they don’t always agree on how to help their daughter move forward is played subtly and wonderfully.

In the film, the Hamiltons come across as a faith-filled family, with scenes of the family in church, Bethany going on a mission trip and participating in the church youth group. The positive image of a strong and faith-filled family and community is welcome, as is the portrayal of Christian faith as a vital and natural part of life.

The shots of the beautiful ocean and spectacular surfing celebrate God’s creation and the beauty of the human body. Bethany’s love for surfing drives the film both plot-wise and visually. This singleminded approach is a strength for those who love the sports genre, but perhaps a bit of a weakness for other viewers.

Limitations
The film’s script is less complex than it could be, with only one major storyline and little character development. The lack of complexity limits the film to surfing over the depths of Bethany’s life and faith. But perhaps this is a wise choice that, in the end, is more respectful of and true to Bethany’s life.

Window to the Soul?
The overall Christian worldview of the film is evident and provides the opportunity to reflect on many themes. The most powerful moments for me were when Bethany struggles with the question, “Why did God let this happen to me?” The film does a good job with this: it doesn’t shy away from the big question, and it also avoids giving an easy, unsatisfactory answer. This excellent approach allows us as viewers to look for insights into Bethany’s character and determination, and then accompany her on her struggle to not only accept what has happened to her, but turn it into something she can give to God.

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Faith
  • Family
  • Being a good sport
  • Community
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Where is God when bad things happen?
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