Like the Kauai Coast, which provides Sean McNamara’s film with its stunning backdrop, life ebbs and flows, transforming from dead calm to raging storm at frightening speed.
For 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton, everything changed in the blink of an eye on October 31, 2003, when a 14-foot tiger shark ripped off her left arm just below the shoulder during a morning surf.
Despite losing 60% of her blood, Bethany survived her harrowing ordeal and made headlines around the world by getting back on her surfboard.
Doctors weren’t convinced that she could recapture her championship-worthy form with just one arm.
However, with the love and support of her family, Bethany conquered her limitations and took on her rivals at the National Scholastic Surfing Championships on equal terms.
Based on the book by Hamilton, Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh, Soul Surfer recounts the young athlete’s inspirational true story, celebrating the power of the human spirit to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
Swathed in heartwarming sentiment that occasionally errs towards mawkishness, McNamara’s film is life-affirming and feelgood, building to a grandstand finish that leaves a small lump in the throat.
Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) was born to surf alongside her parents Tom (Dennis Quaid) and Cheri (Helen Hunt) and brothers Noah (Ross Thomas) and Tommy (Chris Brochu).
She regularly takes to the waves with best friend Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson) to compete against fierce rival, Malia Birch (Sonya Balmores).
Following the shark attack, Bethany almost gives up on life, fearing that her disfigurement will be a turn off for boys.
“For centuries, (Venus de Milo) was considered the pinnacle of beauty and she had one less arm than you,” argues her mother tenderly.
Bethany also questions her faith and turns to youth group leader Sarah Hill (Carrie Underwood).
She invites Bethany to travel to Phuket, Thailand, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami to help with the humanitarian effort.
Surrounded by devastation, the teenager gains new perspective, realising she can make a difference: “Life is like surfing. When you get caught in the impact zone, you have to get right back up.”
Soul Surfer rides on the crest of a predictable wave, watching as Bethany almost gives up and then re-discovers her competitive edge.
Robb is compelling in the lead role and there are some poignant scenes between the young actress and Quaid and Hunt.
Surfing sequences are thrilling with the obligatory slow-motion shots of characters emerging triumphant from the tube of a crashing wave.
Archive footage and home videos of the real Bethany over the end credits confirm that McNamara’s film clings largely to fact and shows how the youngster touched the hearts of millions with her courage and determination.
Review by Damon Smith
:: NO SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 5/10
Released: September 23 (UK & Ireland), 105 mins