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'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.


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