The true story of one-armed surfer girl Bethany Hamilton keeps its balance in “Soul Surfer,” a kind-hearted coming-of-age drama with killer waves. As played by AnnaSophia Robb, the pic’s Hawaiian heroine gradually uses her limb-losing encounter with a tiger shark as a way of calling attention to the resilience of disabled persons — and not only those riding giants. Distinguished by splashy cinematography, engaging performances from Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as the girl’s go-get-’em parents, and understated scenes of the family practicing its Christian faith, “Soul Surfer” likely won’t break waves at the B.O., but it’ll stay on the board.
Beautifully lensed by d.p. John R. Leonetti, the film opens with born-to-surf Bethany proclaiming in voiceover her near-fatal attraction to big swells. The introduction of the Hamiltons and their dog goofing around at their Kawai beach house has a few too many canine reaction shots for its own good, but it clearly establishes the family’s fun-lovin’ life force, which will be put to the test when Bethany, in a scene that pushes the PG rating almost as much as “Jaws” did, gets her arm chewed off while riding the waves with teen gal pal Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) and Alana’s father, Holt (Kevin Sorbo).
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That Bethany’s dad happens to be on an operating table for knee surgery when he gets the news of his daughter’s attack is but one example of the movie’s penchant for high-pitched melodrama. But co-writer/director Sean McNamara (“Bratz”) wisely keeps the focus on his articulately faith-spouting characters, who struggle to comprehend how their God can permit such suffering. Only in a scene of armless Bethany tearing a limb off her old Barbie doll does the fact-based soap give way to excessive lather. (Shame she doesn’t instead take out her frustration on her bedroom poster of “The Endless Summer.”)
Repudiating prosthetics, as well as a coveted slot in the Hawaiian Island Regionals, Bethany travels with her Christian youth group, led by Sarah (Carrie Underwood, making her bigscreen debut), to Phuket, Thailand, to help victims of the 2004 tsunami. It’s here that “Soul Surfer,” like its real-life heroine, reveals a stirring commitment to humanitarianism, one that’s exceedingly rare among American movies. Nevertheless, McNamara heads back to the surf for a rousing sports-film finale set at the Rip Curl Nationals, where Bethany, enjoying her new celebrity, faces off against her archrival, the mercilessly competitive Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores).
Thesping quality is strong across the board, but Quaid stands out, delivering even the script’s shakier lines with humor and sincerity. The well-toned Robb makes a convincing surfer, thanks in large part to excellent stunt coordination and a judicious deployment of digital effects. Action scenes are set to blaring pop-rock tunes that, while bordering on cheesy, help get the blood pumping anyway. Leonetti’s widescreen images remain razor-sharp above and below water.