What does it mean that this sports melodrama made for tweens shows more craft and heart than most of the year's grown-up Hollywood fare? It's been that kind of season, sadly. Then again, any inspiration is welcome: The real-life tale of Bethany Hamilton, a golden-hued Hawaiian surfer who refused to let an arm-chomping shark rob her of her passion, has, on paper, a dangerous amount of mush---all the dimensions of a traditional heart thumper, down to the supportive family and Karate Kid--style competition at the end.
But Soul Surfer also boasts the extraordinary presence of AnnaSophia Robb (carving a niche for herself in tough roles, especially Bridge to Terabithia) as the toned yet vulnerable Bethany. Amid the movie's robustly physical cast, she seems tiny after the Jaws-vicious attack, and Robb lets us into her dissolving identity with a subtlety that's far better that the scripted dialogue. (Girl can also shoot a curl decently, even though the gnarlier work was done by Hamilton herself.) Superb limb-erasing effects and lush cinematography are bonuses, though not so much the cloying presence of American Idol's Carrie Underwood, as a Christian youth-group leader expressing religious elements that are elsewhere underplayed. Fortunately, Hamilton's 2004 journey to the aftermath of Thailand's tsunami disaster gets more time than these kinds of movies usually allow---a global awareness that's refreshing.
Watch the trailer