Director Sean McNamara takes the story of Bethany Hamilton—a teenaged aspiring national-champion surfer whose life and ambitions were brought up short by a horrific encounter with a shark… and who nonetheless later won the national championships—and presents it with such simplicity and directness that we are reminded how overly complex, dark, and cynical most mainstream moviemaking has become.
On my flight to New York City for the film's premiere, American Airlines was screening the Best Picture winner THE KING'S SPEECH, and I found myself thinking: "The performances are of course spot on, and it's a great story; but why do all our films have such drab color palettes these days? Why can’t we have a little color, a little spark, a little life?"
Life In Spades
SOUL SURFER, filmed on location in Hawaii and Tahiti, gives us color and life in spades. Director Sean McNamara has taken his experience from shooting TV's Beyond the Break surfing series, leavened it with an understanding of young women from his prior teen movies BRATZ and RAISE YOUR VOICE, and delivered what may be the most wholesomely appealing and polished American film since THE BLIND SIDE. It's bright, it's energetic, it affirms the best of traditional American values, and it heartbreakingly depicts the pain of familial tragedy at its most graphic. And the joy of coming out the other side.
McNamara has also learned a few cinematic tricks from filmmaking greats such as Steven Spielberg. Following the film's premiere in New York City, he confirmed for me, for instance, that many of the surfing sequences cribbed the 45-degree shutter angle used in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator—used here not to accentuate the details of violence, but of beauty. His color palette also reminds me of Tarsem's THE FALL, one of the most beautiful films this decade. Cinematographer John R. Leonetti has teamed with McNamara for stunning work here in difficult circumstances, hauling 35mm cameras behind waterskis and mounting them on surfboards for wildly effective shots that nonetheless serve the story without overwhelming it. This is not the most spectacular surfing film ever shot—but it doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be. There are more important things to capture.
Immersed in the Culture
Anna Sophia Robb plays Bethany Hamilton in the best performance of her still-young career. Bethany's "love for water, love for surfing, a passion for the ocean" was "something I knew I was going to have to get," Robb said after the premiere—and she nails it. "It's all about the waves," she continued. "If the waves are good, you go." And go Bethany does, along with brothers Jonah and Tim, and her mother Cheri and father Tom. We all know, of course, that surfers have their own culture; but SOUL SURFER immerses us in it, and Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt seem born for it as Tom and Cheri.
The blissful immersion only lasts so long, of course, as most of us have heard the story about how Bethany's arm was taken off by a shark at the shoulder. From there, what takes over is the other part of the Hamilton family culture: faith. More than once Bethany would ask, as she does at a key juncture in the film, "What am I supposed to do now?" And as is the case with most of us when we want to question God, or whatever we think it is that's behind the evil that we find in this world, we are left with Tom's advice to his daughter: "When the time is right, you'll know. Until then, you'll pray and wait."
Is This Real?
Even as a devout Christian herself, Robb had a hard time swallowing Bethany's faith when she read the script. But when she questioned McNamara and found out the facts of the story—the shark attack happened on Halloween, and Bethany was surfing again by Thanksgiving and competing again just weeks after that—Robb became "more and more excited because this was a true, actual story."
What Bethany discovers is that the purpose of her life is much bigger than surfing, winning national titles, or even having two arms. It's about, as her real-life father Tom said after the premiere, giving hope to "people who have no hope." And at one point, that included Tom Hamilton himself, whose anger and resentment God ultimately healed through an incident in Phuket, Tailand depicted in the film.
It's How You Play Your Hand
Honestly, I have not been so emotionally affected by the entirety of a film since THE FOUNTAIN or SEVEN POUNDS. I was as close to the edge of my seat as I could get throughout the film, given the available leg room in the Paley Center for Media theater, and found the film's slightly fictionalized conclusion to have just the right blend of Rocky-style optimism. It's not whether you win or lose, or whether life treats you "fairly." It's how you play the hand you're dealt.
And Bethany Hamilton, with God's help, is a winner, in the finest and purest fashion.
Of course, I'm biased. I'm married to another winner cut from the same Godly cloth as Bethany Hamilton. Stories like this can't help but inspire me.
SOUL SURFER is rated PG for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material. The thematic material is, of course, Christian faith. If it's fair to give THE LAST MIMZY a PG for New Age thematic material, it's fair here, too. I just imagine that for an awful lot of people, that's going to be a recommendation and not a warning.
Courtesy of a national publicist and the film's producers, Greg attended the red carpet premiere of SOUL SURFER in New York City.