If the film based on her life is accurate, the family, friends and well-wishers surrounding teen surfer Bethany Hamilton (played by AnnaSophia Robb) never much needed to offer her inspirational advice after a shark absconded with her left arm. She was a living, breathing motivational slogan machine. “I don’t need easy, I just need possible,” she crows as she tries to overcome one significant hurdle. And is she afraid to get back into the water after her accident? Bah. “I’m more afraid of not surfing,” she boasts. True, Hamilton suffers a crisis of confidence exactly when the narrative depends upon it, but it’s only a pretext for her true comeback and Rocky-esque performance at the big competition climax.
Hamilton’s unwhiny resilience, bordering on inhuman, her ability to brave through the most intense of circumstances and her irritation at receiving even the slightest pity is a trait complemented by nearly every character with whom she comes in contact, from her homeschooling surfer parents (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) to the family friend who’s never been nominated for even a Golden Globe (Kevin Sorbo). Iron will is not a trait shared by the makers of Soul Surfer, a thousand-hankie, inspirational weepie that proves the bizarre rule that any film about someone who bravely toughs it out will be as goopy as their subjects were tough-willed.
Director Sean McNamara, of Hilary Duff vehicles and Bratz: The Movie, lunges at heart strings like a murderer would a throat, which would be even more bothersome if he hadn’t lucked into a primary cast that knows to underplay. Hunt may aim for the Oscar nom, but Quaid sporadically falls back on his goofy, old-school charisma, re-whipping out one of the most infectious grins in cinema. Robb winningly embodies all that is admirable about Hamilton: She’s tough, pitiless and fragile enough not to seem like an alien species, qualities standing in stark contrast to the film around her. But perhaps not everyone would get that Hamilton is worthy of adulation without someone there insisting it every couple seconds.