Soul Surfer, based on the 2004 biography of the same name, is the inspirational real-life story of teen surfer Bethany Hamilton, who survived a vicious shark attack and the loss of her arm at the age of 13. The film is directed by Sean McNamara, a veteran television director, who based the screenplay on Hamilton's biography and producer David Brookwell's interviews with the Hamilton family. McNamara effectively recreates their sleepy seaside Hawaiian life, but the film's simplistic execution of weighty issues and some heavy-handed proselytizing make Soul Surfer feel less like a Sunday matinee and more like a Sunday sermon.
The story centers on Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), a champion surfer and clear favorite for winning the Hawaiian Island Regionals. One day during a routine training session, Bethany falls victim to a shark attack, and despite the best efforts of a team of doctors, she loses her arm. From there, she fights through this tragedy with the help of her family and friends, and thanks to determination, intense training, and deep-rooted faith, she eventually returns to surfing to fulfill her dream of becoming a pro surfer.
AnnaSophia Robb gives an earnest performance as Bethany and handles her one-armed handicap believably thanks to excellent CGI work. Robb, with her warm smile and spirited determination, makes Bethany the type of young hero you want to cheer for, but poor storytelling from an army of scriptwriters (seven total!) undermines her lead performance. Still, some of the best scenes throughout the film are the everyday moments, like Bethany and her best friend, Alana, sneaking off to join friends for a little full-moon surfing or Bethany learning how to do everyday tasks, like getting dressed and making a sandwich, with one arm. These are the moments that make the film worth watching and truly showcase Robb's growth as an actress. The supporting cast includes veteran actors Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, who play Bethany's supportive and nurturing parents, and singer Carrie Underwood playing Sarah Hill, a church youth leader who pops up in scenes when Bethany needs a dose of spiritual wisdom and later encourages her to volunteer after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
Filmed on location in Kauai and Oahu, Soul Surfer is full of stunning cinematography, with the real-life Bethany performing her own stunt surfing; however, despite the visual aspects of the film, McNamara seems to be out of his depth as he fails to capture the intensity and drama around the pivotal shark attack -- it happens so fast that if you blink you miss it -- and instead offers a dizzying array of snapshots, all leading up to a dream sequence in which Bethany is surfing toward a blinding white light. That sequence is just one example of a pattern of visual cues and religious symbolism taken to increasingly absurd levels as the film escalates to a predictable end. As a result, the achievement of Bethany's dream seems like a foregone conclusion rather than a conflict, which makes every obstacle down the road seem like little more than a pebble on the road to salvation.