Every time I review a faith-based film, I feel like I need to start with the same disclaimer. I’m not giving the film—in this case, Sean McNamara’s Soul Surfer—half-a-star because of its religious predilections. I’m giving it half-a-star because it’s simply a bad piece of filmmaking. Soul Surfer is a cheap, shoddy work that just so happens to have a Christian bent. A poorly made film about any topic, however well-intentioned, doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a poorly made film.
Soul Surfer is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb, Race to Witch Mountain), a young surfer who had her arm bitten off by a shark and wrote a book about it. The film—based on Hamilton’s book—manages to mix all the treacle of a faith-based, inspirational film with the mind-numbing predictability of an inspirational sports movie. It’s like the Doublemint gum of inspiration.
The movie deals with Bethany’s casual approach towards faith via her disfigurement. (If you want to read more deeply into it, one could argue that the young lass loses her arm because she skipped out on a mission trip with her church.) But the film’s faith is wielded to less to convince and more to bludgeon, and all of Soul Surfer’s good intentions are for the converted. The film is a saccharine, overly sincere approach to religion that simply comes off as corny.
Doing nothing for its cause is how bad a piece of filmmaking Soul Surfer really is. The hardships Bethany must face—like the trials and tribulations of grocery shopping—are pretty silly, while the scenes where Bethany learns the true meaning of surfing are either goofy or unconvincing. All the melodrama surrounding Bethany’s lost arm is one thing, but there’s no excuse for such a cheaply made movie.
The special effects—like Bethany’s lost arm that’s been digitally erased in post-production, or AnnaSophia Robb’s face being creepily superimposed onto her surf double—is plain-old shoddy to the point of distraction. It’s 2011, and don’t tell me you can’t copy an effect from Forrest Gump (1994) convincingly. Put all together, Soul Surfer is a movie that causes fewer qualms for me over its religious spiel than how poorly made it is, and in the end it’s a failure because Soul Surfer never bothered to make me care. Rated PG for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material.