Bethany Hamilton has a story worth telling. Born and raised on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, Bethany was a natural surfer already winning competitions and securing endorsements as a pre-teen. In 2003, at the age of 13, her promising future appeared to be jeopardy when a 15-foot tiger shark bit off her left arm in a well-publicized attack. The fact that she survived—despite losing 60 percent of her blood—is a miracle; the way she has thrived ever since is astonishing and, it would seem, perfect source material for a feature film. Enter Soul Surfer, an imperfect but compelling movie that succeeds largely on the strength of Hamilton's incredible-but-true story.
Aspects of her journey have already been well documented, from the extensive media coverage of her accident, to her own biography (2004's Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family and Fighting to Get Back on the Board) and the 2007 short-film documentary Heart of a Soul Surfer. Challenged with translating so much already-familiar material for the big screen, Soul Surfer's producers wisely sought out an accomplished cast.
AnnaSophia Robb (Race to Witch Mountain, Bridge to Terabithia) is strong in the central role, capturing both Bethany's resiliency and her vulnerability with natural charisma. Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point, The Rookie) brings plenty of heart to the role of Bethany's father, Tom, and Academy Award winner Helen Hunt (What Women Want, Pay It Forward) is a touch wan but convincing as Bethany's worried mother, Cheri. Most of the supporting cast is strong as well, including Lorraine Nicholson (Jack Nicholson's daughter) as Bethany's best friend, Alana Blanchard, TV veteran Kevin Sorbo as Alana's father and a key participant in Bethany's rescue, and Craig T. Nelson as her empathetic physician and close family friend.
The trailer for Soul Surfer emphasizes another cast member: Country music star Carrie Underwood, who plays Bethany's church youth group leader and mentor, Sarah Hill. Underwood's feature film debut has upped the buzz factor, and her photogenic features do translate well on screen. However, in a couple of key emotional scenes, Underwood fails to equal the cast around her, and her lack of acting experience detracts from the film.
In fairness, the film asks a lot of Underwood; the screenplay counts on Sarah to be the primary mouthpiece for the Christian faith that is integral to Bethany's story. The Hamiltons have always been frank about their beliefs, and the film, to its credit, is just as overt about exploring the role that faith played in Bethany's recovery and continues to play in her everyday life. (In the opening minutes, we see the family attending a beachside worship service, and they pray together and cling to relevant Scriptures throughout the turmoil surrounding the shark attack.)
There's another scene, more than a year after the shark attack, where Bethany joins Sarah and others on a World Vision-sponsored missions trip to Thailand, several months after the tsunami of December 2004. After seeing the devastation, meeting orphans, and connecting with a people who also had good reason to fear going back into the water, Hamilton gains additional perspective on living in the wake of tragic circumstances.