Monday 26 September 2011

Hand of God: "Soul Surfer"

The cinema's fixation with young girls in bikinis continues unabated, though rarely can it have been framed as weirdly as it is in Sean McNamara's teen drama Soul Surfer. This is the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a promising surfer who, on the verge of a lucrative pro career, had her arm bitten clean off in a shark attack. A further twist of sorts is that Hamilton was a devout Christian, with a "Pray for Surf" poster hanging in her bedroom; lapsing into shock in the immediate wake of the attack, she apparently had a vision of the afterlife as the light at the end of a ripcurl.

Soul Surfer
's seven-man screenplay isn't shy about presenting this aspect of its heroine's character. We see Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) at study classes where Jeremiah is invoked as a lesson in seeing the bigger picture; her father (Dennis Quaid) pours over a Bible at his daughter's bedside; and a final clip shows the real-life Bethany at the Teen Choice awards, thanking Jesus for her courage and perseverance. By which point, we've come to suspect Disney have their eye on the same churchy demographic The Blind Side (and, to a lesser extent, their own Secretariat) was aiming at, and we may have cause to wonder when wholesome family entertainment became synonymous with holier-than-thou entertainment.

That said, the film itself remains a sweet and - who knows? - possibly even inspirational tale about a teenage girl with more body issues than is usual to wrestle with: as Bethany's parents, Quaid and Helen Hunt are warmer and more engaged than they really need to be, and Robb gives a credibly tough and winning reading, never begging for our sympathies unduly. Yes, it's a 12A Disney movie, which means it goes easy on the despair (having questioned how the accident could be considered "part of God's plan", Bethany is observed smiling and suntanned in the very next scene), the sooner to get its heroine back on the water, yet the entire second act moves in unexpected, if not quite mysterious, ways.

Here, Bethany hands over her boards to her fans and sets out to Thailand to assist in the clean-up following the Asian Tsunami, in effect swapping one exhilarating set of waves for another, more destructive kind. In this stretch, the initial deluge of Christian imagery, its relentless message of compassion and tolerance, comes to make a sincere, if simplistic, sort of sense: this was, after all, a story about somebody who came to practice what had been repeatedly preached to them. If aspects of Bethany's final triumph remain predictable (such as the emergence of a hunky male best friend who sees her for the remarkable young woman she is, whether one-armed or two) the whole stands as entirely acceptable sleepover fare - though any secular humanists in your pyjama party may prefer 2002's Blue Crush, which hit the beach in a far less whitebread fashion, and wasn't so insistent on hanging ten with Jesus.

Soul Surfer is in cinemas nationwide.

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