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Soul Surfer is the inspiring true story of teen surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack and courageously overcame all odds to become a champion again, through her sheer determination and unwavering faith. The film features an all-star cast, including Anna Sophia Robb and Helen Hunt, with Carrie Underwood in her film debut, and Dennis Quaid. In the wake of this life-changing event that took her arm and nearly her life, Bethany’s feisty determination and steadfast beliefs spur her toward an adventurous comeback that gives her the grit to turn her loss into a gift for others.
The life of Bethany Hamilton, a promising amateur Hawaiian surfer who overcame a crippling shark attack at age 13 to succeed on the pro circuit, would likely make for a compelling, inspirational cinematic experience even if it consisted of a voice-over recounting her story on a blank screen. The actual film may stay firmly within the standard safe sports underdog movie guidelines (complete with a sneering nemesis clad in a black wetsuit), but Hamilton's incredible strength and spirit still manage to shine through, aided by a terrifically appealing lead performance by AnnaSophia Robb. Beginning with a montage establishing Hamilton's lifetime love of the water, the film quickly focuses on the strong ties with both her family (including her parents, here played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) and community (personified in Carrie Underwood's youth minister) that aided in her recovery from tragedy. Director-cowriter Sean McNamara, a television veteran, gives the images an appealing, natural sheen, but unfortunately proves less successful at illustrating the depths of his main character. Throughout, Hamilton comes across as more of an idealized, selfless saint than a real person learning how to cope with such horrendous trauma, which is a particular shame, considering how good Robb is during the few moments when she's allowed to show frustration. She does her real-life inspiration proud, even if the film surrounding her sometimes feels overly scrubbed. --Andrew Wright