Soul Surfer (2011)

Rated. V-2; L -0; S/N –2. Running time: 1 hour 10 min

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future
with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray
to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find
me; if you seek me with all your heart,
Jeremiah 29:11-13

Bethany with her parents Tom and Cheri are all avid surfers.

2011 TriStar Pictures

Christian filmmakers would do well to study director Sean McNamara’s fact-based story when they at- tempt to make a film designed to “inspire” audiences. With a minimal amount of “God talk” and a great amount of stunning photography of surf and its riders, he and his team of co0writers have given us a film that truly is inspiring. (The last phrase makes me think of the motto for the Heartland Film Festival, for which this film is a natural candidate.)

Even the film’s title is not from the religious realm, unless you regard surfing itself as a religion—and it certainly is similar in that its adherents must be disciplined, dedicated, and in love with the sport, which is a fair definition of a soul surfer, one so enraptured by the waves and thrill of riding them that she has moved beyond the thought of mere winning. Bethany Hamilton (Anna Sophia Robb), barely into her teens, is such a person, born into a family of surfers living in Hawaii. Her parents Cheri and Tom (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) are skilled surfers, as are her two brothers. Even on Sundays she is to be found surfing at the beach near their home, as we see in an early scene in which her father calls her in because it is time for church.

Thus we see that the family is deeply committed to God, their church being a joyful assembly, its informal service held under a wall-less thatched shelter. Like Job, everything is going well for Bethany until that ironic Halloween morning in 2003. (This shocking incident and all that follows is set up well by a brief scene in which youth minister Sara [Carrie Underwood] quotes the above passage from Jeremiah.) Bethany is out surfing with some of her family when the she is attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark, the fierce creature biting off her left arm.

Both she and her father retain their calm so that neither panics, and he staunches the blood until the quickly summoned emergency squad arrives. The hospital surgeon Dr. Rovinksy (Craig T. Nelson) is a family friend, and so the stricken girl is surrounded by caring people—including not only her family, but also her best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson), and her youth minister Sara, as well as the rest of the hospital staff.

One of the strong points of the film is this depiction of a loving circle of believers who are with us in good times and bad. This is certainly Bethany’s bad, indeed, her worst time, and though her faith is strong, she too grieves over her loss and wonders, crying out to her youth minister, “Why me?” To her credit, Cary does not respond with the easy and trite answers of those in Rabbit Hole who lamely try to console with shallow explanations Nicole Kidman’s character over the loss her young son. The youth leader admits to not knowing, realizing that death, like life itself is a mystery. But, like the hovering presence of God, she is there for Cary. And the youth group becomes a part of Bethany’s road back to a healthy mind and soul. When she accompanies her friends on a service project to Thailand to help the survivors of the great tsunami that devastated the region, Bethany encounters those who have suffered far more than she has. Her heart is touched by a child she holds in her arms. He has become so fearful of the water that he will not go near it. Picking up a surfboard, Bethany walks toward the ocean as she beckons the child to join her. He refuses, but apparently touched by her kindness, he keeps his eyes on her. She kneels down at the water’s edge, urging him to come and join her. He shakes his head No. She keeps this up, until at last he slowly walks to her, shortly afterward thoroughly enjoying the water as he holds onto the board. (This is a very teachable/preachable scene that could serve as a parable of how God woos us to come and follow in God’s way.)

Another inspiring, earlier, scene is that in which Bethany decides to go back into the water after she is home from the hospital. At first she is so dispirited because she cannot compete in an upcoming surfing event, that she gives away her surfboards to young fans. Her struggle to perform simple kitchen chores such as chopping a vegetable depresses her. Her father had tried to encourage her to go back into the water, but Cheri, sensing that their daughter would have to decide this for herself, had restrained him. Nonetheless we see him drilling two holes into a surfboard.

Thus when Bethany decides on her own to try surfing again, he reveals that he has modified a board by adding a small piece of rope near the front so that the one-armed girl can more easily hold it. Her first attempts to stand up on the board end in failure, the power of the waves and her needing to learn how to balance her body without her left arm, being too much. So, when Rocky-like she persists, finally staying up and afloat, it is a joyful moment for the theatre audience, as well as her family watching from the shore.

The closest thing to a villain in this blend of inspirational and sports genres is Bethany’s fiercest competitor Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores), who is so jealous in one scene that when Bethany beats her, huffily walks away from the winner’s platform. However, at a later event even she is swept up by Bethany’s incredible comeback in the sport they both love that she gracefully extends a gesture of admiration and friendship when Bethany comes in third. This is a film for the whole family. The young will enjoy the spectacular shots of attractive surfers going up against and riding huge waves, and older viewers will be inspired by the courage, and faith, of the characters. I can highly recommend this as a good film for youth groups to see and discuss—especially Bethany’s answer to a piercing question from one of the sports reporters near the end of the film. It will make you look at your own faith and wonder if you would be able to say that.

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers toward the end.

1. How does this film leave you as you think about your own setbacks? Puts things in perspective?

2. Have you felt like Bethany when going through a time of great suffering, questioning God and God’s goodness? How is it important that those around us do not offer easy answers to suffering? Note in Rabbit Hole Nicole Kidman’s character refuses to agree with the silly answer to her little boy’s death that God must have wanted another angel in heaven, so he took him. When or where have you heard this or similar pat answers? Note that in the Jody Foster film Contact, her character, at the time a young girl, refuses the shallow answer to her father’s untimely death offered by an adult.

3. What do you think of the writers’ choice of using the Jeremiah quotation in the youth service that Bethany attends? How appropriate is it? How can remembering this help us during dark times in our lives—and they will come (See Matthew 5:45 and the parable at the end of the chapter.)

4. Reflect on Cary’s answer to Bethany that she doesn’t know what good is going to come out of this.” How does this suggest that our attention must be upon God, not just on ourselves, when we suffer, our faith in his goodness causing us to look for good resulting even from bad things afflicting us? Could this be why in Rabbit Hole the mother neve
r finds healing, that all of her attention is centered on her and her pain?

5. Have you even thought of what it might be like to have just one arm and hand? What does she have difficulty in doing? You might try doing some of your every day tasks using just one arm and hand.

6. Who constitutes Bethany’s support system? How is this vital in her road to recovery? How do they fulfill Paul’s command in Galatians 6:2? At what points in your life have others helped you bear your burden? And whom have you likewise helped?

7. During her depression, when Bethany says that boys will no longer consider her beautiful, what does her mother say? How is her example of the famous statue delightfully appropriate?

8. What do you think of Bethany’s answer at the end of the film to the reporter’s question about the attack? How has she “embraced more people with one arm than she could have with one arm” ? How is this a vindication of Paul’s assertion in Romans 8:28?

9. What seems to be the understanding of God that the characters have in this film?