Taking on Tragedy
By Carl Kozlowski
These days, it seems everyone wants to be famous—and the younger the person, the more attention-obsessed they seem to be. But what if you garnered international attention because a shark literally bit off your arm?
That was the dilemma faced by Bethany Hamilton on Halloween of 2003, when the teenage champion surfer survived a surprise shark attack off the coast of her home in Hawaii. Yet, unlike others who have made the news due to freak occurrences, Hamilton has continued to fascinate the media due to the fact that she not only survived and recovered, but has become an even bigger star surfer since then.
Her odds-defying story is now the basis of the new film Soul Surfer, which dives into Hamilton’s story by showing that her entire family has two big passions: catching waves and celebrating their Christian faith. Early on, the couple of church scenes seem like a gloss as the focus rests on surfing action and Bethany’s teenage social life.
But once the film digs deeper into her story with the attack and a riveting sequence depicting her family’s desperate race to get her to a hospital, Surfer finds surer footing and its performances—including Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Bethany’s parents, and Anna Sophia Robb as Bethany herself, with American Idol champion and country singing superstar Carrie Underwood as her youth minister—also take root.
Aside from the inherent spectacle of surfing Hawaii’s spectacular coastline in competitions, Surfer proves affecting not only for its depiction of a family bonding through trauma, but also for its portrayal of Bethany’s mission trip to the Indonesian coast after the devastating tsunami there. Her realization that there’s always a bigger crisis than your own to help others through is a timely reminder amid the ongoing tragedy in Japan.
With such a dramatic story to be told, it would have been nice if the film had attracted a heavyweight director and writing team to the project—and at one point, Oscar-winning writer Ron Bass (Rainman) had his hands in the mix before the final product was written by a hodgepodge of six scribes. But director Sean McNamara is a veteran of teen TV sitcoms and it’s apparent that he and executive producer Douglas Schwartz (who earned zillions as the creator of ’90s TV smash Baywatch) decided to aim their sights on reaching teenage girls and their families above other audiences.