The true story of a teenage girl who overcame a horrific shark attack to rise to the top of her sport is translated to the big screen in "Soul Surfer" (Tri-Star), an uplifting film about the power of faith and perseverance.
Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) is a happy, ordinary 13-year-old living in Hawaii with her parents (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) and two brothers. The entire family surfs, but Bethany shows the most promise, winning competitions and gaining a sponsor.
When not at the beach, Bethany's family is often in church, where sermons are given by youth-group leader Sara (country singer Carrie Underwood in her film debut).
Sara's message? Trust in the Lord and his purposes, as revealed in Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord."
No one could have predicted God's plan for Bethany on Halloween morning 2003: While paddling out with friends to catch a wave, Bethany is attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark, which bites off her arm. In a flash, her life and dreams are changed forever.
The depiction of the attack and its aftermath, while not overly explicit, is nonetheless disturbing.
Surprisingly, while her family and friends fall to pieces, Bethany is serene and composed. With only a few "Why me?" moments (including one where she snaps the arm off her Barbie doll), Bethany accepts her fate and is determined to surf again, whatever the odds. Faith in God remains her anchor, and the fuel for her inexhaustible determination.
"You can do all things through him who gives you strength," Sara reminds Bethany. "You pray and you listen for what comes next. Something good will come out of this."
And it does. Soon Bethany is competing—and winning—at surfing events again. And she uses her newfound celebrity to inspire the disabled and others to follow their dreams.
Bethany also travels to Thailand with her church to aid tsunami victims. "Love is more powerful than any fear, bigger than any tidal wave," she says.
Directed by Sean McNamara ("Raise Your Voice"), "Soul Surfer" is that Hollywood rarity: a film that is not afraid to talk about God or to show a happy, well-adjusted family that makes faith its foundation.
The cinematography is stunning. The Aloha State has never looked so beautiful, and the surfing scenes are thrilling, putting viewers out on the water and inside the waves. Digital effects convey Bethany's disability and her efforts to overcome it.
Despite the intensely emotional (but nongraphic) shark onslaught and its aftermath, "Soul Surfer" can be enjoyed by parents and mature young people alike. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Joseph McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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