Movie review: Inspiring story gets uninspired telling in 'Soul Surfer'

Bob Tremblay/Daily News staff
Dennis Quaid, AnnaSophia Robb, center, and Helen Hunt are shown in a scene from "Soul Surfer."

"Soul Surfer"

Grade: C+

After watching "Soul Surfer," moviegoers with a religious bent might believe they've caught a wave and are sitting on top of the world. Cue Beach Boys' harmonies.

Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of 13-year-old surfing phenom Bethany Hamilton who lost her left arm in a shark attack in 2003 yet overcomes adversity to become a champion surfer. How inspirational is that?

Very, but mainstream viewers who require cinematic inspiration in the telling of inspirational stories might be left high and dry. Instead of getting under the characters' suntanned skin, the film skims the surface like a paper-thin stone. It looks pretty as it skips along the water until it sinks without a trace.

The film chooses to travel the safe, idealistic route where if any conflicts arise, they are quickly and painlessly resolved. Or they just simply disappear. In one scene, one of Bethany's brothers gets mad, bolts from the family at the hospital and... and...and?

The opportunity for personal drama certainly exists. For example, Bethany rightfully worries how boys will view her with one arm. Will she ever be able to have a "normal" relationship with a boy? To try to deal with this issue, the film sticks in a boy who clearly likes her but their relationship goes nowhere. Of course, if it went somewhere that might add an element of s-e-x to the film and that's likely to be a no-no for the faith-based target audience.

Atheists beware. This is not your movie. What does Bethany do after she goes surfing? She goes to church. What happens to Bethany after she decides to train rather than go on a church mission to Mexico? She gets attacked by a shark. What book does Bethany's father read at Bethany's bedside in the hospital? It's not "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Singer Carrie Underwood, who makes her film debut as a church youth leader, gets to quote from Scripture and during the closing credits, the filmmakers thank Jesus Christ not just once but twice. And the film's message? When you have faith, anything is possible.

Now just because a film promotes religious values doesn't necessarily mean it merits a panning from the heathens known as critics. Whether a film caters to believers or non-believers, it requires quality in three key areas to be considered worthwhile: direction, writing and acting. In "Soul Surfer," one out of three ain't bad.

Director Sean McNamara, whose resume includes "Bratz," a film based on dolls, takes the easy way out in the opening scene with narration as Bethany tells us about her childhood. We learn that she has saltwater in her veins, that all her family members are surfers, that she's competitive because of her older brothers and that surfing is her passion. You might think the audience could figure that out from watching her. What's that they say in Filmmaking 101: Show, don't tell? But telling involves less thinking.

Then in fine cliche form, Bethany suddenly morphs from a young girl into a teen with a shot of her climbing on a surfboard. McNamara does film the surfing scenes well. They are thrilling to watch and you get an appreciation for the skill involved (the real-life Bethany provides stunt work). The Hawaiian scenery looks fabulous, too.

As for the shark attack, the rescue contains more drama than the attack itself with McNamara playing games by showing the surfers from under the water as in "Jaws."

The worst offense, however, is committed by the maudlin script. Seven people are credited with writing the story while four receive script credit. Once again, it's the too-many-cooks scenario.

My favorite shameless, heart-tugging scene takes place when Bethany decides -- after the attack -- to go on a church mission to Thailand as the country recovers from a devastating tsunami (good timing with the Japan disaster). Not surprisingly, the people aren't too keen to go back into the water -- until Bethany coaxes a little boy onto a surfboard. So cute, and so contrived. Even if it really happened, the scene gets milked for every tear.

The film also adds a bad guy, or in this case, a bad girl, Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores), who acts as Bethany's nemesis in surfing competitions. Throughout the film, she's a horrendous human being -- until the end when she suddenly has an epiphany and becomes a sweetheart. Please!

In the head-scratching department, a doctor is operating on Bethany's father but leaves him to tend to Bethany after the attack. This must be one of those Hawaiian hospitals with only one doctor.

Saving the film is its A-list cast: AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany, Dennis Quaid as Bethany's father and Helen Hunt as her mother. They do their best given the script's limitations. Robb, in particular, exudes such an engaging presence. Watch her in "Bridge to Terabithia" to see what she can do with a good screenplay.

It's a shame the film is so mediocre -- at least, for mainstream audiences -- because Bethany is anything but. However, Hollywood typically has trouble telling real-life stories well because it prefers crowd-pleasing cornpone to real life. If we had seen more of Bethany's struggle -- physically, mentally and spiritually -- without the sugarcoating, we could have appreciated her triumph even more. And that's the God's honest truth.

"Soul Surfer" is rated PG for intense accident sequence and some thematic material. Running time: 106 minutes.