The 1960s term "soul surfer" has been used to describe everyone from die-hard boarders who quit their day jobs, to beach bums who only think they can handle a wave. But for Bethany Hamilton it means far more. Her soul truly is engaged in her passion for surfing. She even thinks God made her for it.
As a gifted child surfer in Hawaii, Bethany spent more time wet than she did dry. In fact, her mother was fairly convinced her daughter was a mermaid. To Bethany, pure joy meant catching a perfect wave and calling her ocean home. And she didn't want to leave it even after tragedy ordered her to stay ashore.
It was 2003 when, at the age of 13, real-life Bethany lost her left arm in a tiger shark attack. Soul Surfer tries to tell the story of her courageous, indefatigable fight to return to competitive-level surfing. It also serves as a testament to the spiritual, emotional and physical restoration she attributes to "God's healing touch."
Even as Bethany faces a crushing, life-altering misfortune, she harbors little or no self-pity and fear. And though at times she tearfully questions God's plan for her life, she never blames Him for her struggles. Encouraged by her spiritual mentor, Sarah, she trusts God to bring good out of the hardship.
Her oldest brother, Noah, recently told CBN, "It was hard at first; I think that was a natural feeling. And there was definitely some questioning: 'God, why Bethany? She had such an amazing future. Why?' But in the hospital, when we saw that joy of the Lord in Bethany, with no self-pity and grateful to be alive, that really pulled me out of despair."
We don't see much of Noah's personal journey onscreen. But we see a whole lot of Bethany's indomitable spirit, and how it generally affects everyone around her. It's not that she's instantly OK in her head about her arm. But before the credits roll, she gotten over herself, as it were, and has fully refocused herself on others rather than her own situation. Fan mail fills the Hamilton household as people hear of her injury and brave journey back to competition. And as she reads of their hardships, realizes the unique public platform God has given her to help encourage them.
Bethany's family is hopeful and loving, as are her community and church family. With their support she tackles her new life one task at a time until she relearns how to do simple things she'd once taken for granted. She also faces her injury boldly, training even harder to overcome it and doggedly paddling her way back toward her dreams—even in the face of almost certain defeat.
On some level Bethany's rescuers risk their own lives to bring her to safety. And everyone's—especially Bethany's—levelheaded, calm response to the crisis contributes to keeping her alive.
Why is tragedy allowed in our lives? And what does God have in mind for us when it strikes? Bethany doesn't know the answers to those questions. But she shows us that even in our ignorance we can have the assurance that He is loving. And that He does have a good and perfect plan, even when it doesn't make sense to our tear-soaked hearts and minds.
Before her injury, Bethany's youth group leader, Sarah, shares with her Jeremiah 29:11. The verse becomes an anchor for the teen as she gamely faces her new future. Clinging also to Philippians 4:13, she perseveres, and with time and greater perspective she realizes how little she has suffered in comparison to others. While in Thailand on a summer missions trip, for example, she helps people who have lost many of their loved ones and most of their village to the 2004 tsunami.
There, a poignant moment has her teaching a very young, orphaned boy how to overcome his fear of the water and learn how to ride a surfboard. And speaking of summer missions trips, they get a pretty significant plug in Soul Surfer. They are shown to be a big part of the Hamilton family's mindset, and are by extension promoted as life-improving ventures—for both those who are ministered to and those who do the ministering.
Elsewhere, Bethany publicly thanks Jesus Christ for giving her courage. We see her attending her church's youth group. And at a church service the praise chorus "Blessed Be Your Name" is sung. Believers pray before meals. Bethany's anxious dad reads a Bible while at her hospital bedside.
A note about a few of the specific symbols of Christian faith in this film: The Jeremiah reference was for a time removed during editing. But when Carrie Underwood, who plays Sarah Hill, reportedly asked the filmmakers to "tell the story" fairly and accurately by preserving both the verse and its reference, they listened. Deemed too conspicuous and "prop-like," the words "Holy Bible" were also digitally removed from the cover of Bethany's dad's Bible. (Most Bibles these days don't have much on the front.) But after Tom Hamilton e-mailed a photo of his own Bible—emblazoned with big text similar to that on the Gideon's Bible used in the scene—the words were reinstated. Hamilton told The Hollywood Reporter, "I could see the words bright and clear. I looked at my wife and whispered, 'Thank you, God, they put it back."
This is a surfing story set in Hawaii, a beach culture where bikinis and board shorts are little more than landscape. As Bethany's mom, Cheri Hamilton, told Focus on the Family in an interview, "You can't exactly wear a parka on a beach." And when asked by Focus' Dr. Juli Slattery about modesty, Bethany replied, "Good-looking surfer guys aren't looking at the girls. They're looking at the waves."
Still, when bronzed bodies modified by nothing more than small swatches of cloth fill the movie screen, there aren't always waves waiting to divert your attention. Guys go shirtless. Teen girls and women wear bikinis, and some of the suits are pretty skimpy. We see Bethany's bare back as she's trying to tie her top with one hand after the accident. Her friend Alana changes suits on the beach with only a towel blocking everyone's view. She also strikes some sultry poses for a magazine photo shoot.
When Bethany and Alana look at a one-piece suit, they dismiss it as something a 100-year-old woman would wear. Yet … in that same scene, Bethany also encourages her friend to wear more than the "eye patch" bikini top Alana deems "hot," saying she'll be plenty sorry if she wipes out big while wearing so little.
Married couples kiss. Teens casually flirt.
The shark attack happens quickly, and the large fish is barely seen—just as Bethany says the attack occurred in real life. The aftermath of the bite is chaotic, and a large flow of blood from Bethany's shoulder billows into the water as her friends scramble to save her. The camera doesn't linger on her bloodied stump, but we do fully get the idea that she's sustained a life-threatening injury and will bleed to death if somebody doesn't do something fast.
Surfing is a contact sport of sorts—contact with wild waves and, occasionally, people who want to foul your path toward a good one. Alana blocks Malina, Bethany's fiercest opponent, trying to prevent the girl from beating Bethany to one of those waves. Later Bethany is battered in the impact zone—the worst place to be as a surfer, where the lip of the wave crashes back into the ocean, sending people deep underwater. Several shots show surfers struggling to surface or complete a maneuver.
Racing to save Bethany, a teen throws a rock through a truck window to retrieve a cellphone that's locked inside. Scenes of a Thai village devastated by a tsunami are shown. Shell-shocked people walk amid the debris.
Other Negative Elements
Bethany and Alana sneak out to go night surfing, disappointing Cheri when she discovers it. The girls are also sarcastic toward the equally snide Malina (though Bethany gradually decides that she can extend a genuine hand of friendship to her strongest competitor).
When under stress at the hospital after Bethany's injury, her brother and father argue. After she's sponsored by a surfboard company and feels she should train more, Bethany reneges on her commitment to go on a missions trip.
"This is the first movie I've ever been involved in," Tom Hamilton told Fox News. "What really counts is what ends up on the screen. And we are absolutely thrilled with the way the film turned out, and the wonderful way it portrays Bethany's and our family's story and faith."
Many moviegoers will feel exactly the same way.
Bethany didn't have to win her big post-injury competition to inspire people. She just had to try. And as she says onscreen, she doesn't need easy, she just needs possible. Now, through her struggles, millions of people are being touched by her message of God's loving purpose in our lives.
She said in an interview with CBN, "We never know what life brings. Maybe there are some rough times for you now or in the future. I think that if you seek God first and focus on Him, you'll be able to endure those struggles and hardships."
She doesn't say it exactly like that in Soul Surfer. But the gist is there, loud enough to be heard over the pounding surf. Clear enough to be seen amidst all those bodies on the beach. Thanks to her amazing courage and determination, and the supportive love of friends and family—and God—Bethany is thriving once more. And in many ways she's able to embrace more people with one arm than she ever could have with two.