by: Alyssa Ruffolo
*WARNING: INCLUDES SPOILERS!*
The movie Soul Surfer (2011),directed by Sean McNamara, is based on a true story about a young surfer named Bethany Hamilton whose arm was completely bitten off by a shark when she was only thirteen years old. Having already began to make a name for herself in the surfing community, Bethany survives the traumatic event and eventually picks up where she left off in her surfing career. I saw this movie when it first came out in 2011 and really enjoyed it the first time I watched it. I have watched it several times since, and while it would be considered a “chick flick” by most, I would suggest it to anyone who likes a heartfelt, inspiring tale. This is a family drama that includes tropical beach imagery, religion, and action/competition. It is similar to The Blind Side (2009) film in the way that it is based on a true story that pulls on the viewers’ heartstrings with struggles, selfless help from others along the way, and ending with the main character overcoming a life-altering obstacle. The credits in both movies include real-life photos of the people who are played by characters in the movie, which serves as a nice touch to remind the viewers that many of the events in this movie actually happened, and not even that long ago. Many people enjoy watching a film that is based on real happenings because it shows credibility and makes the audience feel closer to the characters. We like a story where the main character goes through some kind of hardship and comes out on top because it gives us inspiration that maybe we could approach our hardships in a similar way and feel the same satisfaction/success on the other side.
If you like the whole bohemian, tropical, surfer image, you will definitely enjoy the imagery in this film. From the clear blue ocean waters, to the stretching green mountains, to the tall palm trees and tan/barefoot inhabitants of the islands, this movie paints a picture of the Hawaiian paradise which Bethany calls home. The colors are bright, there is a nice breeze, and the sun is shining in most scenes. There are a few parts prior to the shark attack scene that have the viewers on edge, thinking she may be attacked at this point in the film. For example, Bethany goes night surfing with a group of friends and there is a shot where the camera is below her surfboard in the dark water, seemingly from the point-of-view of a shark swimming below her looking up. I suspect this was a decision made by the director because many viewers already knew the main plot of the movie and expected the shark attack. The director probably wanted to make it more of a surprise to the audience, so he used these tactics leading up to the scene to provide more suspense. While her childhood is portrayed in the movie to be likely much more fantastic than it actually was, it is enjoyable to imagine this ideal life of living on a Hawaiian island and spending your life outside in the fresh air, surfing and going out to parties with your best friend. Bethany has minimal school-related worries because she is home-schooled by her own mother so that she has more time to focus on her surfing career. She is well-known in for her athletic ability in the sport, has a good relationship with her family, has a friend group in the local community, shares a strong sense of identity with the religious community, and is seemingly very content with her life. This imagery is intended to appeal to an audience who enjoys an idealistic, romanticized story.
On the other hand, there is also a lot of action included in the movie. The surfing competitions are intense and suspenseful. An upbeat song plays as the horn sounds and Bethany and her competitors splash into the clear blue water to begin the surfing competition. A half-pipe is briefly shown, with skateboarders swiftly gliding up and down and skillfully flipping in the air. The surf competitors are shown snapping off the waves and doing several stunts as the judges call out the names and points earned by the competitors. Bethany and her biggest competitor Malinda slice into the water as they race to catch the next wave. Although some of the shots are clearly digitally edited, the actors did indeed learn to surf for various scenes in the movie and Bethany Hamilton and her personal coach had a lot of involvement on the set. This makes the action scenes more authentic and exciting to watch.
Religion plays a big part in the real Bethany Hamilton’s life. When she won the 2004 Teen Choice Award, she said she owed her strength to Jesus Christ. I admired how they kept these religious themes in the movie because it evidently plays a huge part of Bethany Hamilton and her family’s everyday life. In several interviews and blogs by the real Bethany Hamilton, she describes her religion has her meaning for life and says that her faith is what gave her the strength to make it through the near-death experience and the struggles following the loss of her arm. In one of the opening scenes of the movie we see Bethany jump out of the water, throw on a sundress, and run to join her family at an outside mass. Religious songs are sang by actress and singer Carrie Underwood, who plays Sarah, Bethany’s youth group leader. There is also a scene at Bethany’s youth group where she and some of her close friends are taught about perspective and given a bible quote by Sarah. Later after her accident, this idea of perspective is revisited when Bethany is trying to understand and deal with the new issues she is facing in the aftermath. She goes on a mission trip to Thailand shortly after a tsunami which destroys much of the land and kills many people in the area. After witnessing the lives of people who are much worse off than she is, Bethany is touched and her perspective is changed. This trip and gives her a better understanding of her true privilege and fortune despite the obstacles she faces.
At the closing of the movie, several pictures and video clips appear on the screen from Bethany’s real life. There is video of her in the hospital right after the accident playing with balloons, reflecting her light-hearted attitude even right after the event. There is also a video of her preparing fruit in her kitchen and dropping the tray, which is imitated almost identically in the movie, as well as a scene where her brother is tying her hair in a ponytail for her on the beach. Another clip shows her doing one-armed push-ups on the beach. These scenes are all recreated in the movie almost exactly how they appear on this home film, showing ethos to the audience that this really did happen and the movie stayed true to the real story in many ways. We also have video of Bethany’s actual family members, her youth group leader, and her best friend. This part is interesting because these characters are definitely more glamorized in the movie; her mother and youth group leader are both heavier in real life, while in the movie they are both portrayed as younger and more in shape. Again, this is a way of making her life seem more “picture perfect” and which takes away from the credentials that this movie is true to her real life. We also see that Bethany’s real pet dog plays itself in the movie, which adds to the pathos of the movie.
Overall, this is a very uplifting film. While it may be glamorized to be more visually appealing to the audience, there are strong themes of religion, perseverance, and positivity which appeal to an audience looking for a mood-lifting story. It is also informative because it is based on true events. Bethany Hamilton continued her pro-surfing career much after the loss of her arm. If you have an interest in surfing, religion, or are looking for inspiration, this might be worth the watch.
originally posted: 2/5