The beautiful teenage girl floats across the surface of a crystal-blue ocean like a dream, her sun-bleached blonde tresses flowing behind her, unpolluted joy painted across her face.
She’s running late, lost in the reverie of surfing her native Hawaii’s epic waves. On the white-sand beach in the distance, her brother calls to her to come ashore.
As the new film “Soul Surfer” opens, the angelic surfer, Bethany Hamilton (played by AnnaSophia Robb), rushes ashore, grabs a white sundress and hustles up the beach to a large white tent where a crowd is gathered in chairs.
The scene looks like it could be a wedding, but it’s actually a regular Sunday morning worship service at Calvary Chapel in Kauai. Bethany, her hair a wet tangle around her shoulders, joins her family for worship.
Churchgoing is a rare event in cinema. Usually, it’s the backdrop for a wedding, funeral or christening. More commonly, a church scene is used to show some kind of inherent pathology in the characters’ psyche or impending evil. (See: “The Apostle” or “The Exorcist.”)
Even more commonly, religious life is depicted as a last resort in times of trauma ― a kind of Hail Mary prayer, a deathbed confession, a futile search for answers to impossible questions about loss, tragedy and pain.
“Soul Surfer,” based on the real-life story of the world-class surfer who lost her arm in a 2003 shark attack at age 14, has plenty of trauma and the ensuing grappling with loss. But the religious life of the Hamilton family is portrayed as a normal part of their everyday lives.
And that is part of what makes the “Soul Surfer” story ring so wonderfully authentic.
After Hamilton loses her arm, she awakens in the hospital with her father Tom (Dennis Quaid) quietly reading the Bible at her bedside. When she asks her father if she’ll ever surf again, he knows she will. She can do all things ... “through him who gives me strength,” she says, finishing the quote from Philippians.
To be sure, “Soul Surfer” is not without moments of defeat. When Hamilton enters her first post-accident surfing contest, she fails and gives up. She even gives her surfboards away.
(In real life, Hamilton says that didn’t happen. Instead, she says, she never gave up and relied on her Christian faith to carry her through. Perhaps filmmakers believed the truth was simply too far-fetched for audiences to accept.)
In the film, a despondent Hamilton turns to her youth group leader, Sarah Hill (played by country music star Carrie Underwood) at the seaside church pavilion and asks that most difficult of questions: Why would God let this happen?
“I don’t know,” Hill answers. This is usually where people, in films and in real life, try to give a well-intentioned answer that nonetheless always falls short of providing any real solace.
The youth director consoles her young disciple, saying that she’s sure something good will come of the girl’s unfathomable loss. She quotes from Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
When Hamilton asks her father a similar question in the film ― now what is she going to do? ― he answers, “Whatever comes next.”
What actually came next, before her triumphant return to competitive surfing, was a trip to tsunami-stricken Thailand where Hamilton volunteered with the international relief group World Vision. Out of her own pain, she reached out to help others, even teaching a young orphaned boy how to surf.
By transcending her own grief, digging deep in the well of her soul to find the strength to help others, the film shows Hamilton finding the courage to conquer her own fears, doubts and frustrations.
“Soul Surfer” succeeds where many other Christian-themed films fail. It strikes a satisfying balance between powerful storytelling and overreaching message-giving.
The Hamilton clan’s faith comes across as authentic and, in another uncommon feat, appealing. While some have criticized the film for not being explicitly “Christian” enough, its just-shy-of-understated approach to portraying real religious life on film allows “Soul Surfer” to speak the language of faith without beating the audience over the head with a Bible.
Hamilton’s real-life story is beyond inspirational; today, at 21, she’s one of the top women surfers in the world. And on film, her story doesn’t lose any of its power ― or faith.
The real-life Hamilton did all of the one-armed surfing scenes in the film herself. In the film’s final scene, after an astounding performance at a surf contest, reporters ask whether, if she had to do it all over again, she would choose again to go surfing the day the shark took her arm.
Her faithful answer is breathtaking.
“I’ve had the chance to embrace more people with one arm than I ever could with two,” she says. It’s an answer the real-life Bethany has offered many times.
Sometimes the truth is harder to believe than fiction.