Recently I watched Kickboxer (1989) and was going to review it. However, that movie is too ridiculous for words. So why did I view it? I have been trying to stick to titles that I find on various streaming services. Also, when I was a kid I thought it was cool that Jean-Claude van Damme could do the splits, I suppose. Of course, I had not seen since I was about eleven, and things back them seemed less silly. Anyway, it has been a rough time for me lately, and I will be trying to look at movies that have a more positive message, though I will not fault Kurt Sloane (van Damme in Kickboxer) for his pluckiness. Therefore the next night I put on Soul Surfer (2011).
I had seen Soul Surfer before, once. I do not recall it making too big of an impact on me then, but I was in a different place at that time spiritually. As such, this time around (after the opening montage that establishes Bethany Hamilton’s (AnnaSophia Robb) affinity for surfing) I was nearly moved to tears by an early sequence. We see Bethany on the water with her board, and she is called in to go to church. As she walks in (the area she was surfing is right next to the church), they are playing “Blessed Be Your Name.” Right away, we understand how important God is to her and her family. This will play a key role as the film goes on. The other passion that Bethany has is, of course, for surfing. Based on her performance in a competition that comes next, her and her friend Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson) earn a sponsorship from famed beach apparel company Rip Curl. Thus Bethany’s dream of becoming a professional surfer is within grasp. Feeling like she needs to concentrate on her chosen profession, she also backs out of a planned mission trip to Mexico with her church youth group. God works in mysterious ways. While out practicing her craft, with an arm dangling lazily in the water, a shark swims up and bites off her appendage at the shoulder. Her companions react quickly, and she remarkably retains her consciousness, all of which contribute to her being able to survive the ordeal. To her credit, she also does not let her loss affect her determination to do what she loves. Everyone around her is encouraging as well, but she finds that she cannot surf (yet) at the same level as she once did. This is brought to a head when she struggles in her first competition after her accident. Finally feeling discouragement and seemingly ready to give up, she decides to go on her youth group’s next mission trip, this time to Thailand to help with the relief efforts going on there in the wake of a devastating tidal wave. Going there shows her that her disappointments are as nothing compared to the suffering going on in Thailand. With this new perspective, she comes back determined to surf not for the sake of competition and being the best, but because she sees it as a service to those who showed such an outpouring of support when she lost her arm. Though she does not ultimately win her next surf meet, she is satisfied with her progress and is even honored by her former nemesis, Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores).
I love that in Soul Surfer Bethany learns that surfing is not everything. This is a lesson that she is in danger of ignoring, even after the shark attack. It is interesting because her stated favorite scripture passage is Jeremiah 29:11, which talks about how God has plans for all of us, plans for good and not for harm. Indeed, the entire film could be said to focus on this one passage and Bethany’s journey with it. At many points, she asks why God would do this to her, as if He was out to get her and ruin her dreams. There is an old saying that says, basically, that your arms are too short to box with God. What that basically means is that you cannot contend with God’s will. While that might seem harsh, I would refer you back to Jeremiah 29:11, if nothing else. As for Bethany, while she believes at times that her surfing career is over, God knows her desire better than she does and seems to call her into a higher purpose with her profession. As the film ends, it is suggested that her supposed “disability” is actually a blessing that allows her to inspire others.
That ending, though, kind of brings me to a small criticism of Soul Surfer. In the end, I chalk it up to Hollywood’s seeming distaste for giving avowed Christians their due, no matter how good of a story is Bethany’s. A brief moment during the credits underscores the point I am trying to make. It shows the real life Bethany Hamilton receiving an award. During her acceptance speech she credits her Faith as being the reason why she was so honored. My wish is that this dedication to her Christian beliefs were just a little bit more visible. It is not bad, it is certainly there, but as it is it is more like pleasant background noise.
Despite perhaps not going quite far enough with Christianity for this reviewer, Soul Surfer gets my unequivocal recommendation. If you have time, I also suggest looking up Bethany Hamilton’s story itself. She is every bit the inspiration the film portrays her as, with the added bonus of being more serious about her Faith than it lets on. She continues her mission to this day.