'Soul Surfer': Salt Water in My Veins

Ah, paradise -- the opening credits end and Bethany heads out of the water to church, a tent on the beach where Carrie Underwood is singing. Wait! Carrie Underwood?

Soul Surfer

Director: Sean McNamara
Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Jeremy Sumpter, Kevin Sorbo, Craig T. Nelson, Carrie Underwood, Lorraine Nicholson
Rated: PG
Studio: FilmDistrict, TriStar
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-04-08 (General release)
UK date: 2011-06-17 (General release)

"I was born to two diehard surfers: how could I not have salt water in my veins?" Looking back on how she came to love the sea and surfing, 13-year-old Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb, who is lovely) describes something like a perfect childhood: long hours in the sun, lots of support from her super-tanned parents (Tom, played by Dennis Quaid, and Cheri, played by Helen Hunt) and older brothers (Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu), as well a best friend, Alana (Lorraine Nicholson), with blond hair and a blithe spirit to match her own.

The early scenes in Soul Surfer illustrate Bethany's memory. The sea is blue, the kids are happy, and the Hawaiian mountains are beautiful. Ah, paradise -- the opening credits end and Bethany heads out of the water to church, a tent on the beach where Carrie Underwood is singing. Wait! Carrie Underwood?

Actually, it's Carrie Underwood playing her first film part, as Sarah, the director of Bethany's church group. She encourages her members to see big pictures, to keep in mind "how hard it can be to make sense of things when you're looking at them really close." Bethany, being 13, sees a pretty specific picture: when she has a surfing competition coming up, she decides not to go with the group to do good work in Mexico. When Sara frowns at this news, Bethany's rattled, for a minute (as she tells her mom, "Sara's really bumming me out").

Soon enough, however, she's back on her board, battling for a first place against her number one rival, Malina (Sonya Balmores). The girls are opposites: sunny Bethany tries to make friends when they run into each other shopping for bikinis, but Malina only glowers, determined not to lose her competitive edge. In another movie, say, the prequel to Blue Crush, this contention and inevitable resolution might be the plot. But this film, based on Bethany Hamilton's real life story, is headed in another direction, such that the girls' life lessons will be direr.

Specifically, Bethany loses her arm to a shark attack. This happens during an aptly harrowing sequence that begins one morning, as Bethany, Alana, and Alana's dad Holt (Kevin Sorbo). Amid the smiles and lapping waves, a tiger shark pops up out of the water and chomps off her arm. Rendered in a series of close-ups of Bethany's face -- eyes rolling back, cheeks collapsing, as she's carried on her board from beach to vehicle to ER -- the event changes her life forever. Luckily, Holt knows how to slow the bleeding and gets Bethany to the hospital in time to save that life.

As she lies wan and limp in her hospital bed, Cheri and Tom fret and Dr. Rovinksy (Craig T. Nelson) reassures them: it was no one's fault and she's going to be fine, if minus one arm. As the entire family must adjust to Bethany's new status, she becomes the model for their better behavior. She's quick to thank Holt for being so great, while Cheri can't even look at him without frowning and tearing up, and she's also quick to assert her desire to get back on the surfboard -- not only to paddle about, but also to compete.

Her decision sets in motion some predictable conflicts: dad embodies the choice to surf (refitting her board, encouraging her to be "the way she was") and mom voices the option to move on, to embrace a new sort of life with new priorities. Both options are revealed in TV. First, the bad: reporters looking for tabloidy sensation crowd the family's front lawn, thrusting microphones in Bethany's direction and engulfing her as she gets out of the car coming home from the hospital. Equally crass, Inside Edition offers to buy her a prosthetic arm if she'll pay them back with an exclusive interview, a deal she ends up regretting, as the arm isn't quite as bionic as she imagined.

Second, the goodish: Bethany spots coverage of the tsunami in Thailand on a TV and lo, she begins to understand degrees of pain and suffering. When Sarah's church group goes to help out there, Bethany goes along, and when she gets off a bus in Thailand, the camera pulls out to show the devastation -- not quite as she sees it, but as it affects her. Stunned and crying, she can't bear to hear how a woman lost her family and turns away. Yes, at last, she's "getting a sense of things" from a bit of a distance. It will come as no surprise that this re-jiggering of he perspective helps her be a better surfer too. While the film doesn't suggest that the tsunami benefits Bethany or anyone else, it does draw some rather neat lines around seemingly mysterious ways.






'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.