By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Soul Surfer is so spiritually sincere that complaining about its flaws could be an expressway to hell.
I'll take my chances, although Soul Surfer is as critic-proof as movies come. Based on a true story shaped by Christian ideals, the message enables believers to overlook the elemental screenplay and performances. They won't mind that everything in Sean McNamara's film is played just a tad too earnestly, as if the target audience must be reassured of the power of faith.
Is it getting hot in here?
Maybe it's time to confess that regardless of those issues, Soul Surfer is a fairly entertaining show, and certainly what people who think movies are a godless art can get behind. It's the Sunday School version of 127 Hours, with survival depending upon Scripture rather than a Swiss army knife. Soul Surfer is a nice movie, in temperament if not always quality.
The story focuses on Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), a teenage surfer who lost an arm to a shark just when her career was taking off. Bethany quit surfing but returned to competition, urged by her tropi-cool parents (Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt) and a missionary stint aiding tsunami victims with worse problems. Carrie Underwood plays her youth worship minister, so Soul Surfer has more than the usual celebrity cachet for a church flick.
It's a heart-tugging story, and McNamara never misses the chance to remind viewers of that. What Soul Surfer needs — what any story needs — is a richer sense of conflict, some chance that someone won't do the right thing.
I don't doubt that the real Bethany is as wholesome, plucky and pious as Robb plays her. So is everyone else in Soul Surfer except an invented surfing rival (Sonya Balmores), who is without any compassion for Bethany (boo, hiss). She'll see the light.
That would be a spoiler except Soul Surfer never intends to surprise, only confirm Christian beliefs. It's more technically polished than typical faith-based films, especially the excellent digital "erasing" of Robb's left arm after the shark attack.
The sermons are subtle, raising the film's chances of crossing over to secular audiences. Soul Surfer is so clean that it squeaks, but sometimes that's a nice change of pace.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.