Finally saw 2011’s Soul Surfer, mostly because I like to keep track of how “nearly mainline” Christian films are faring these days. It was…OK.
As a story, it’s more than inspiring, and if that’s what motivates you to see it, then it really does the trick, and is well worth the time. It’s based on the true story of teenage Bethany Hamilton, an up-and-coming surfing champion living in Hawaii who survived a vicious shark attack in which she lost her arm. Bethany and her family are strong Christians, and the story is really two parts—the story of her attack and survival, and the story of how she integrated a faith-shaking incident into a faith-filled life and oh, yes, how she managed to get back to championship surfing.
In the age of special effects landscapes, alternate universes and zombie/vampire worlds, it’s refreshing to have a simple story sold simply. It would have been easy to gild the lily of such a powerful story by cranking up the dramatic moments, of which there are inherently plenty. But while the story comes through in some of its power, the film is less emotionally powerful than it might have been, and it seems to have its Christian identity a bit tamped down.
Perhaps in an effort to keep things from becoming melodramatic, the film tends to treat nearly every scene equally. There is a night surfing scene that is allowed to play out somewhat in its beauty and awe, but that is the exception. The family scenes, the missionary scenes, the times of doubt and discouragement, even the shark attack scene—-they are all fairly straightforward in treatment. Perhaps it’s the script, perhaps it’s the camera placement, or the direction, but most scenes look and feel like the rest. The emotions never get out of hand, and perhaps they should.
The Christianity is also curiously presented. According to the extra materials, the Hamilton family was insistent that two things were gotten “right”—the surfing and the Christianity. When an early scene had an outdoor church service with the worship team leading Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name,” a fairly current and popular Christian chorus, I was anticipating a film that would present today’s Christian evangelical believers with a degree of reality. Questions of faith and expressions of faith are in there, but are curiously non-specific when they should be pointed. Pain and doubt are real, whether God is in the picture or not. When He is, it can be more dramatic rather than less. Giving real thanks and glory to God is also real, and film needs to find a way to express the profound joy of getting to that place.
I’m reminded here of one of the supposed ironies of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. It’s as focused in time and place as a film can get. It’s all about a Manhattan Upper West Side, intellectual group of creative people in the mid-1970s—some of them New York Jewish. And it’s also a love story universal in scope and appeal. Its universal appeal comes out of its specificity. Soul Surfer offers some moments of spiritual reality and depth to the underfed Christian American filmgoer, but falls into platitudes about human strength and willpower. Bethany is clearly an amazing person, but I’m guessing she would be the last to credit herself with as much of the “survival miracle” as the film gives her.
The parents are played by top-tier actors Dennis Quaid and Oscar-winner Helen Hunt. Both are talented actors, but sometimes even the best non-Christian actors have a hard time suggesting the depths of spiritual struggles that involve God. Hunt is an excellent actress, but her cry to God to not “take” Bethany right after the attack, for example, is the work of an accomplished actor, not a woman crying out to a God she knows. Sometimes the lack of personal experience shows in an actor’s work.
Carrie Underwood stretches herself by playing Bethany’s youth leader in a role that is curiously written or poorly edited. There seem to be some issues in the first half of the film that don’t get resolved in the second. As an actress, Underwood is a great singer. (I say this with tenderness—she and my son and daughter-in-law attend the same church). I applaud her move as a step of public expression of her faith. Some singers do become good actors. Not sure I see that potential here.
Soul Surfer is a move in the right direction. But films with substantive, realistic spiritual themes can’t be left to the Europeans and Robert Duvall. American filmmakers—Christian or not—are going to have to find a way to dig deeply enough into the Christian experience to represent it in honesty, truth and artfulness. It’s a rich but under-unexplored terrain.