Movie Reviews

Soul Surfer (8/2/2011)

Rated PG for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material.

Directed by Sean McNamara

Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Lorraine Nicholson, and Carrie Underwood

JONATHAN’S WORD: Let me be the first to tell you, Soul Surfer pleasantly surprised me. Actually, it surprised my whole family.

I’m going to post my thoughts first, then Todd’s, then Furby’s.

Most of you know, Soul Surfer is the true story of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton who, after losing her arm in a shark attack, endured to continue competing in the professional surfing circuit. It’s an amazing story of how a family’s faith in God inspired them to endure amazing hardships.

I’ll be honest, my family didn’t have very high expectations going into this film. I was invited to screen the film before its release, but I was teaching a parenting workshop that weekend and couldn’t attend the screening. My schedule for the next few weeks prevented me from seeing the film, so I wasn’t able to go until a few weeks after the release. Finally, I told the family, “Let’s go see this movie.”

Being completely candid, my 17-year-old son asked, “Do we have to go?” My daughters were also less than thrilled. Let’s just say that we’ve seen plenty of screenings over the years, and often, Christian films have been pretty cheesy. (Just keeping it real.)

Soul Surfer was nothing of the sort.

First, the talent was top notch. AnnaSophia Robb (Because of Winn Dixie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…) is no joke. I’m soooooooooooooooooo glad that the film makers didn’t use a rookie actor to take on the role of Bethany. Robb brought power and authenticity to the part. Add to that, Bethany’s parents, played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. Amazing. The talent was good across the board.

Christian film-makers, please take note of this. If you’re going to make a Christian film—do it right! I’ve always implored this, taking some criticism from fellow believers. But I hold to my convictions. I think, as believers, we need to produce films with excellence. I’ve talked with Christian filmmakers that always tell me the same sad story: “We didn’t have the budget.” Well let me ask you this: if you started a Christian pizza restaurant and you couldn’t afford fresh cheese or produce… would you use cheap, less-than-quality ingredients? After all… you don’t have the budget, right? Wrong! If you’re going to produce something of quality, you need to use quality elements.

Soul Surfer literally blew me away. The story alone is powerful. It was nice to see the filmmakers do the story justice.

The directing was great. I was so relieved to see good surfing cinematography. Don’t believe rumors about poor effects. Simply not true. The shots were beautiful, and if there were digital effects imposing Robb’s face on another female surfer, I never noticed them. (And realize, I’m the same guy who was very critical of The Voyage of Dawn Treader’s effects. I’m pretty picky with film.)

One of the scenes that really captivated my family was when Bethany and her church group went to Thailand to help out tsunami victims. I don’t want to give away anything, but let me simply say that we were touched and inspired. Probably the best scene of the entire movie.

My entire family walked away from the film pleasantly surprised. We agreed that we’ll be purchasing this movie when it’s released on BluRay.

TODD’S WORD: I agree Jonathan. I too was scared walking into this film.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of “Christian films” fall way short when compared to the big budget Hollywood blockbusters. Most of them are straight-to-DVD releases and get little to no exposure. Of course there are always exceptions… The Passion of the Christ, Facing the Giants and Fireproof have given many of us hope that “Christian films” can make an impact in the world and at the box office (forgive me but Facing the Giants and Fireproof still score pretty high on the Cheese Meter).

So when my friend and author of Soul Surfer told me that Hollywood was making a film about Bethany’s story, I had mixed emotions. I wrestled with thoughts like, “Would they do it right?” and “I hope they don’t ruin it.” And then while I was in Nashville at the Youth Specialties conference, Interlinc showed an advance screening. I only got to see the last 15-20 minutes of the rough cut, and I have to be honest… I was not impressed.

Despite mixed reviews, I decided to take a group of my students to see the movie on opening night. I’m still pretty new at my church so I was nervous. I kept thinking if the film was cheesy or worse… if it was just plain bad, how big of a hit would it be to my creditability? As the theater went dark, I actually whispered, “Please don’t suck.”

Over the next 106 minutes, I was blown away. Yeah the movie was great, but what really resonated with me was how my students responded to the film. There were a few laughs and of course they all jumped at the shark attack scene, but there’s something else, something very unexpected… tears. Bethany’s story is so powerful; from dealing with difficulties and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to gaining perspective and showing compassion to others in the midst of suffering. As we walked out of the theater I was quick to ask them what they thought. Overwhelmingly… they loved it!! It’s been a few days now since we watched the movie and we are still talking about it… and my gut tells me we will talk about this one for a long time to come.

I can’t make you go and make you take your group, but I will say this… I’m going back this weekend and I’m taking some more students.

FURBY’S WORD: Okay, let’s be realistic. Soul Surfer is another Christian movie from Sony Pictures’ faith-based division (home of Fireproof and Facing the Giants). Here’s the bottom line: if you like those movies, you’ll like this movie a lot. Actually, Soul Surfer is an improvement, but we’re still living out the stigma of cheesy Christian movies. Good morals, great video clips to start life discussions with, and plenty of reason for the secular world to call us cheesy.

And please, if my words above just offended you, please keep reading. I’m not bashing Christianity or even faith based films. Bethany is an amazing girl and her story is powerful. I wish that Christians could just put together a film better than the way I order my pizza—with extra cheese.

Soul Surfer is the true story of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton, and her amazing recovery and determination to surf competitively after losing her arm in a shark attack. The movie makes it very clear that it was Bethany’s—along with her family’s—faith that kept her focused and determined to make something out of a terrible situation. Even with one arm, Bethany doesn’t just start surfing again, but becomes a highly recognized professional surfer.

The problem with Soul Surfer isn’t that it’s faith-based. In fact, the writing itself is pretty decent. The two main problems with the film are the poor special effects and the acting (Lorraine Nicholson must have a faith-based agent—oh snap!). Of course, special effects aren’t supposed to be the key ingredient in a movie about a girl overcoming great obstacles in her life, but let’s face it. When you’ve got some amazing footage of the ocean and waves (beautiful shooting from underwater by the way), and then cut to a shot of the clearly superimposed face of AnnaShophia Robb (playing Bethany) on another surfer’s body, it’s just bad. It only takes a little lack in quality to remove you from the beauty of a film. There are several times throughout the movie where it’s clear that they’ve used computers to edit out one of Bethany’s arms. It’s subtle, but there.

The acting is hit and miss. Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid (Bethany’s parents) do great. That’s probably why they do a lot of movies; they’re actors. AnnaSophia Robb isn’t too bad either. But Lorrainne Nicholson (Jack Nicholson’s daughter), who plays Alana Blanchard, Bethany’s best friend and surfer, really kills a lot of scenes. It’s amazing how one character can really hurt a movie. Carrie Underwood (playing Sarah Hilly, Bethany’s youth leader) gives a decent performance. And of course, there were those few scenes with the local teenagers that tried to make the movie look relevant to today’s youth. These scenes are pretty forced and painful.

All in all, though, the movie does have some very redeeming qualities. There are a few great scenes that feature conversations between Bethany (Robb) and her dad (Quaid). Honestly, it was one of my favorite roles for Helen Hunt. A lot of the surfing and ocean footage is brilliant. I’d be much more likely to take a non-Christian to the movie if they have a passion for surfing.

Perhaps the most amazing part of the movie is the ending credits, showing the real Bethany Hamilton and footage from her real life, in the exact same scenes you saw in the movie. This validates everything the movie has to offer, and truly helps take the focus off the bad acting and transfers it to the point: that God does amazing things in and through those who cling to Him faithfully, through victory and through tragedy.

All in all, Soul Surfer is a step in the right direction for our Christian movies, but it’s sad that we have to have steps in the right direction. I’m still waiting for the one to show to non-Christians.

You know, there were a lot of girls in bikinis. It’s a surf movie about a girl. I’d probably be a little hesitant to take just a group of seventh grade boys who have no interest or experience in surfing. But other than that (and it wasn’t too immodest at all), there’s nothing that will offend.

Conversation Starter
Three Simple Questions (with Answers You May Be Looking for):

Q: What’s the message/theme of this movie?
A: Throughout the movie, Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…”) and Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things…”) are quoted. The clear theme of the movie is that even in great tragedy and horrible losses, God can still do amazing things and reveal His glory.

Q: How do you suppose we—as serious Christ-followers—should react to this movie?
A: We need to realize that God has a plan for us, and that no matter how great or horrible or victorious or bleak our situation or circumstances become, we must remain faithful and hopeful.

Q: How can we move from healthy, Bible-based opinions about this movie to actually living out those opinions?
A: Examine your life. We all have those moments when we consider how bad things can get. We must decide today who we would be if indeed things did go badly. We must determine ourselves immediately to trust the Lord and have faith in His wonderful plan for His children.

Ask your kids:

  1. How do you think most people today would respond to a tragedy like losing an arm?

  2. How would you respond?

  3. How did Bethany’s faith help her respond?

  4. In Philippians 4:13 when it says “I can do all things”… what does “all” mean?

  5. How does that affect your confidence level knowing that you’ve got a God on your side who can bring hope out of hopelessness in “all” situations?

  6. What is an area of your life that you might need to allow God to work on your attitude so you depend on him in tough situations?


Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Bullying Breakthrough; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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