April 7, 2011

SOUL SURFER: Charlie Don’t Surf

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Not Even For Free.

There’s a key scene in the new SOUL SURFER where the one-armed teen surfer Bethany Hamilton, who’s had her other arm chewed off by a shark and who despairs of her career in competition, is in Thailand on a Christian mission to tend to tsunami survivors.  And these survivors, having gone through, you know, a tsunami, are all depressed and traumatized, especially a cute little Thai boy who hasn’t been able to speak since the disaster.  But Bethany knows what to do:  she takes that little boy down to the beach with her surfboard, and manages to bring them all back to life–not just the little boy but a whole beachfront full of damaged, starving people–by getting out there with her one arm and showing them just how to handle that board, while her voiceover narration tells us that this is when she learned that the most important thing in this world is Love.  And I, heathen that I am, couldn’t help thinking of Robert Duvall on that Vietnamese beach in Apocalypse Now, roaring:  “CHARLIE DON’T SURF!”

But then, Soul Surfer wasn’t made for me.  It’s an aggressive example of Hollywood’s strategy of producing and marketing films for “faith-based” (which means Christian) groups.  This started.with the massive success of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (a unique example of religion intersecting with cover-story controversy), and has included such recent films as the Narnia saga and Secretariat.  With its relatively low budget, Soul Surfer is a good test case for whether this is a viable market to support a film that might otherwise have limited appeal.

In truth, the religious pandering in Soul Surfer is only moderately obtrusive:  that annoying narration, a few hamhanded scenes with Bethany’s church counselor (Carrie Underwood, very much a non-actress), and a little Bible quoting.  The film’s more hellish problem is that its script (based on Hamilton’s memoir, the screen story is credited to 7 writers, with 4 of them sharing script credit) is a collection of every possible sports-movie cliche.  When Bethany’s father (Dennis Quaid, who had his own inspirational starring role in The Rookie) tells her “You just wait for your wave–you’ll know when it’s coming.  It’s a gift, and you have it,” you can practically set your watch for what’s going to happen in the final competition. 
Quaid keeps his dignity, as does Helen Hunt as Bethany’s mother (although she looks distractingly little like the actress who used to star in “Mad About You”).  AnnaSophia Robb, who starred in Bridge to Terabithia and played Violet Beauregarde in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, is likable as Bethany, and an actress named Sonya Balmores flashes her eyes and makes an impression as the closest thing the movie has to a villain, another surfer who takes a while to appreciate Bethany’s goodness.  But director Sean McNamara (also one of the many writers), who comes out of children’s TV, does little more than drag the picture from point A to point B, and neither he nor the writers have the slightest interest in developing the personalities or complexities of the characters; that might get in the way of the Message.
Soul Surfer is the kind of movie where, if you hear what it’s about and think it’s something you’d want to see, you might well enjoy it.  But for some of us, that Asian beach becomes really inspiring when it’s got crazy soldiers on the boards and flares exploding around them.
(SOUL SURFER – TriStar/FilmDistrict – PG – 106 min. – Director:  Sean McNamara – Script:  McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Douglas Schwartz, Michael Berk; story by McNamara, Schwartz, Schwartz, Berk, Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Brad Gann – Cast:  AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Lorraine Nicholson, Sonya Balmores – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."