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The Independent Critic

Annasophia Robb, Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid, Carrie Underwood, Craig T. Nelson
Sean McNamara
Sean McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Douglas Schwartz, Michael Berk, Bethany Hamilton
Rated PG
104 Mins.
Affirm Films
Deleted Scenes;
The Making of Soul Surfer;
Surfing for the Screen: Inside the Action;
Becoming Bethany;
Heart of a Soul Surfer Documentary;
Bethany Hamilton On Professional Surfing

 "Soul Surfer" Review 
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I'll confess that Soul Surfer has been one of my most anticipated films of early 2011, a film with enough themes related to my own life experiences that there was very little doubt, barring major cinematic failure, that I would at the very least find the film a meaningful experience.

Based upon the real life experiences of young surfing champion Bethany Hamilton (Annasophia Robb), Soul Surfer is unquestionably one of the best faith-based films to get a nationwide release in recent years. Of course, much of this is due to director Sean McNamara's ability to attract a quality Hollywood cast including the up-and-coming Rob along with Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid as her ever faithful parents.

While hearing the phrase "faith-based" may have taken some of you aback, it shouldn't. While the phrase has all too often been associated with preachy, low-budget and even lower quality cinema, recent years have brought to light quite a few Christian and faith-based productions ranging from truly awful to universally appealing. Films such as Facing the Giants, End of the Spear, to a certain degree Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and the recent The Grace Card have proven that when Hollywood manages to weave faith into the fabric of a film in a way that's integral to the story that even those who don't necessarily "believe" will show up. A fellow critic of mine, an atheist, actually rated Gibson's Passion of the Christ higher than did I, while a Buddhist friend of mine found herself completely entertained when I dragged her along to one of the Veggie Tales feature films.

They may never capture box-office gold, but there's a place in the world for inspiring, affirming and faithful cinema, and Soul Surfer is unquestionably a moving, inspiring and genuinely entertaining film despite a formula that occasionally becomes a touch maudlin and a couple directorial questionable directorial choices.

Annasophia Robb is a joy as the spirited Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer from Hawaii whose arm was lost in a shark attack shortly before a major surfing competition. As nearly anyone familiar with her story knows, the young woman bounced back in vibrant and life-affirming fashion thanks to her faith, her family, her friends and her relentless spirit. Robb beautifully captures Hamilton's strength and her doubts, infusing the young woman with enough humanity to avoid turning the flick into a sainthood endeavor but making her strength believable enough that her surviving and thriving makes absolute sense.

Helen Hunt gives her best performance in years, a portrayal of Hamilton's mother that is simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking. Hunt manages to tap magnificently into what it's like to possess unwavering faith when inexplicable tragedy strikes. If you're not reduced to tears as she races to the hospital after her daughter's attack, then I'd dare say you have no feelings.

Similarly, Dennis Quaid drops that golden smile of his and gives one of his most relaxed, winning performances in recent years as a father who always means well but doesn't always choose well. You never doubt his love for his daughter, even as he occasionally pushes her too hard or not hard enough.

Bethany is with her best friend, Alana (Lorraine Nicholson), as the two practice under the guidance of Alana's father (Kevin Sorbo) in preparation for the duo's big break of having attracted a major sponsor. The scene where the shark attacks, which is preceded by far too much taunting underwater dramatics, is devastatingly played out over the course of six excruciating minutes as Bethany struggles to survive, Alana struggles to cope and her father practically saves Bethany's life on his own. While any fool would see the scene coming, when it arrives it's devastating, a testimony to McNamara's gift for both framing shots and pacing the entire scene.

Nicholson and Sorbo are spot-on perfect in their supporting roles, while singer Carrie Underwood has a nice appearance as the leader of Bethany's youth group whose mission trip plays a key role in Bethany's emotional healing.

Marco Beltrami affords the film a terrific score that blends Hawaiian sounds with contemporary secular and faith-based music with the soundtrack also including the likes of Francesca Battistelli and Britt Nicole. D.P. John R. Leonetti's camera work is amazing, especially during the high impact diving sequences and numerous challenging underwater shots, though again the early underwater shots feel unnecessarily dramatic as if to build the intensity as virtually everyone in the theater will know that a shark attack is coming.

There are at least six folks receiving script credits on Soul Surfer, a fact that play into the film's occasionally feeling a touch disjointed and with dialogue that occasionally dips into "movie of the week" territory. The remarkable thing is that most who fault the film are likely to accuse it of being overly dramatic and pouring on the sentimentality, while virtually everything in the film is well documented as true as evidenced by Hamilton's own involvement in the film and wisely included video footage of Hamilton herself in the closing credits that even validates the truth of some of the more unbelievable scenes in the film.

While Soul Surfer is rated PG, be aware that the shark attack and more than a couple of the underwater scenes are a bit jarring and traumatic and may be a bit traumatic for younger viewers. While small children would unquestionably benefit from seeing this inspiring young lady's story, be ready in case your child needs to process the experience after the film.

Soul Surfer is opening in 2,100+ theaters this Friday, April 8th, 2011 and is a tremendous option for families seeking an entertaining, inspiring and affirming experience to share. It would be practically impossible to not be inspired by the real life experiences of Bethany Hamilton, and in Soul Surfer these experiences are brought unforgettably to life.

There's no doubt, in all honesty, that my own life experiences have influenced my appreciation for this film. As a pastor, a double amputee and as someone who has long been recognized as someone who has overcome tremendous challenges, I celebrate the chance to see such a story of resilience, faith and love on the big screen. However, with its universal themes and marvelous performances, there is little doubt that Soul Surfer is a film that will make you celebrate life and everyone you love.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic  

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