Co-writer and director Sean McNamara (Raise Your Voice) has the unfortunate task of following Danny Boyle’s stunning Oscar-nominated adaptation of the true story of hiker Aron Ralston, who spent five days trapped in a canyon before finding the necessary intestinal fortitude to amputate his own arm in order to survive. Surfer's protagonist, Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), has a frighteningly similar story, although hers takes place in the water, the place that seems to be her true home.
A Hawaii native, Hamilton spends most of her time in the ocean with family and friends, surfers all. Water welcomes and grounds her, until one fateful morning when, while out training for an upcoming surfing competition, the teenager loses an arm in a shark attack. McNamara briefly teases the audience with scenes shot from below before the actual attack, but his point is not to scare us with Jaws-like horror or a more contemporary gory display. And as the movie moves forward with Robb’s digitally removed limb casually rendered, the point is not to dazzle us with technical wizardry; McNamara would rather focus on the nature of inspiration, the quiet moments of clarity that make the difference.
The film unabashedly embraces family values and religion over action heroics and simplistic Rocky underdog poses, placing love and faith and hope up on the big screen and daring audiences to turn away. The film purist in me would have appreciated a more cinematic approach, but the quiet portrayal of survival and renewal at the heart of Soul Surfer deserves to be seen from a larger-than-life perspective. Grade: B-