Watching "Soul Surfer," the story of Bethany Hamilton's comeback after a shark attack, makes you long for a vivid documentary on the subject instead - preferably one of those excellent "30 for 30" offerings from ESPN.
Hamilton's tale is, of course, inspiring. In 2003, when she was just 13 years old, she lost her left arm to a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing near her Hawaiian home. An up-and-comer in the sport, she wanted to get back on her board as soon as possible. A month later, she was in the water again. Now, at 21, she continues to compete professionally.
"Soul Surfer" takes that story of complex emotions, determination and faith and turns it into overly simplistic mush. Director and co-writer Sean McNamara's film is an uncomfortable combination of pat, feel-good platitudes, two-dimensional characters, cheesy special effects and generically idyllic scenery.
The script from McNamara and three other writers, based on Hamilton's own memoir, features obvious establishing voiceover lines like, "We spent more time wet than we did dry" and "Surfing is my passion - my way of life." After the attack, in case we couldn't figure out for ourselves how incredibly brave Hamilton is, a longtime family friend says, "You are incredibly brave, Bethany." A doctor also chimes in: "She is a living miracle."
AnnaSophia Robb, who stars as Hamilton, cuts through some of the gooey tedium with a naturally athletic presence and no-nonsense attitude (and the star of "Bridge to Terabithia" and "Race to Witch Mountain" does much of her own surfing). But "Soul Surfer" consistently tries to make her transformation as easily digestible as possible.
This is especially true when it comes to Hamilton's faith. In real life, she and her family are devout Christians who relied heavily on their belief in God to provide strength during this traumatic time. "Soul Surfer" dips its toe in religion just enough to please the faith-based audience it targets, but not so much as to potentially alienate everyone else. It's a cynical and calculated approach that's actually rather offensive. Either go for it, or don't; occupying this middle ground does no justice to who these people really are.
Country star Carrie Underwood bears the brunt of this as Hamilton's youth group leader, who passive-aggressively makes her feel guilty for staying home and training for an upcoming surf competition rather than going on a mission to help feed poor people. But then Hamilton finds herself feeling fortified when she travels to Thailand to aid the victims of the 2004 tsunami. Her observation: "They say the Lord works in mysterious ways."
You don't say.
The attack itself is vaguely thrilling, with Hamilton's idealized parents (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, miscast as a lifelong, laid-back surfer chick) rushing to her side. But then afterward, the digital effects depicting the severed limb are distractingly inconsistent.
From there, everything is a foregone conclusion: that Hamilton will return to surfing, that she'll compete again, that she'll run into her (fictionalized) nemesis and that, regardless of the outcome, she'll feel like a winner.
A life-altering event shouldn't seem so easy.
"Soul Surfer," from TriStar Pictures and Film District, is rated PG for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material. Running time: 106 minutes.