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Film / Soul Surfer

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Soul Surfer is a 2011 American biographical drama film directed by Sean McNamara, based on the 2004 autobiography Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board by Bethany Hamilton about her life as a surfer after a horrific shark attack and her recovery.

Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) is a teenager who lives in Kauai, Hawaii who loves surfing. One day, she and her best friend Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson) go surfing with Alana's father and brother. As Bethany dangles her left arm in the water, a tiger shark appears out of nowhere and bites off her arm near the shoulder.

The film also stars Helen Hunt as Cheri Hamilton, Carrie Underwood as Sarah Hill and Dennis Quaid as Tom Hamilton.

Soul Surfer is one of two films that follows the effect of the shark attack on Bethany's personal life and her surfing career. The second, an autobiographical documentary titled Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable was released in 2018.

This film provides examples of:

  • 10-Minute Retirement: Her first attempt at returning to competitive surfing ends with an angry Bethany deciding to abandon the sport altogether, giving away her surfboards to a bunch of fans while her dad watches disappointed.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: The real Bethany Hamilton claims that she was much more cheerful in the hospital. She played pranks on the nurses and gave stuffed animals to a cancer patient.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Practically everyone, with the exception of Alana, a real-life model, who is even more attractive than her film counterpart, though the real Bethany is much taller.
  • Age Cut: Young Bethany dives underwater and teenage Bethany surfaces.
  • Alliterative Title: Soul Surfer.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Bethany loses her arm to a shark.
  • Artificial Limbs: Bethany gets offered one, but she soon turns it down upon learning that it isn't durable enough to withstand the rigors of surfing.
  • Barely-There Swimwear: The bikini that Alana buys.
    Bethany: Are you kidding? That looks like an eyepatch.
  • Based on a True Story
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Inverted with Malina. Bethany is grateful that Malina never went easy on her, even after the accident.
  • Blood Is Squicker in Water: Good god.
  • Catapult Nightmare: A few days after the shark attack, Alana has a nightmare about it that ends with her sitting up in bed and screaming.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Averted. Here Christianity is Evangelical.
  • Daddy's Girl: Bethany, who is close to her father. He is the first she turns to to train for the competition.
  • Double-Meaning Title: In surfing parlance, a "soul surfer" is someone who does it purely for love of the experience rather than fame and prestige, while the title also refers to how Bethany's religious faith was challenged but she ended up holding on to it.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone who's familiar with Bethany Hamilton's history will already know that she will return to competitive surfing after losing her arm to a shark attack.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: The family lives in a very nice house, with zero mention of what either parent's job is. And if the mother is homeschooling the children, it's possible she doesn't work at all. At the time of the attack in real life, Bethany's father was a waiter and her mother cleaned condos. Not exactly the kind of salaries that could normally afford a big house right on the beach in Hawaii. Though Bethany’s father was a waiter at the Princeville Resort, which is not at the same level as someone waiting tables at say Applebees. He probably made a good amount of money and housing prices on the islands tend to skew a bit on the cheaper side.
  • Good Parents: The Hamiltons and the Blanchards.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: We don't actually see the wound from the shark attack. Lots of blood in the water, though.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Malina, who starts off as a competitive rival to both Bethany and Alana but ultimately has a change of heart and congrats Bethany for trying in the competition.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Bethany and Alana. Truth in Television; they're still best friends to this day.
  • Hold Up Your Score: In an early scene, Tom and Cheri Hamilton go surfing while Bethany and her brothers write down scores on paper and hold them up. Cheri is not pleased with her scores and starts throwing sand at the kids. Much family horseplay ensues.
  • Homeschooled Kids: Bethany, Alana and other onscreen adolescents are never at a formal school. Because the best surfing hours are during school.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Normal is so overrated. Bethany struggles to be normal again after the loss of her arm.
  • I Want My Mommy!: Bethany mumbles, "I want my mom," when she's lying on the beach after the shark attack. During her ambulance ride, the paramedic tries to keep her awake by encouraging her to talk, and she says, "Where's my family?" Then when she wakes up after surgery, the first thing she says is, "Mom?" This time, Cheri is right there to comfort her.
  • Jump Scare: When Bethany and Alana are surfing in the water, all is peaceful and quiet. Then a shark pops out of the water and takes Bethany's arm off in one bite.
  • Mood Whiplash: Bethany and Alana are casually discussing what swimsuits to wear for their photoshoot. Then the shark attacks.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Every female character provides a bit of fanservice, but Alana still manages to stand out. Truth in Television, just look at her! Bethany and Alana spend most of the movie in bikinis. (They're surfers in Hawaii, after all). Most notably, Alana's photoshoot. In point of fact Bethany rather disliked the photoshoot, saying in her memoirs that it made Alana look more exhibitionistic then she really was. Bethany and the other surfers usually wear a jersey over their swimsuits during the actual surfing scenes too.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: While helping in Thailand following the devastating 2004 Tsunami, a local woman sobs uncontrollably to Bethany and the support group that she lost her entire family and her friends in the disaster. Bethany is really hit hard by this, realizing that she was lucky that her family didn't have to go through this level of grief. It's almost as if she feels ashamed that she survived, while this woman lost everything.
  • Oh, Crap!: It describes the look on Tom's face perfectly when a nurse tells his surgeon that they're bringing in a teenage girl who got attacked by a shark—and he knows his daughter was out surfing.
  • Parking Problems:
    • Cheri is so upset after hearing about her daughter's arm, she forgets to put her minivan in Park after arriving at the hospital.
    • Alana's dad, Byron, takes up two parking spaces with his truck.
  • Passionate Sports Girl: Bethany Hamilton starts off with a future on the real waves she surfs. When she comes back from a loss, beating the odds and never saying never, she becomes a champion.
  • Plenty of Blondes: The movie includes pretty much every woman with a speaking part (and maybe then some) except the native Hawaiian Malina Birch, Bethany's fierce rival.
  • Plucky Girl: Bethany, once she regains her passion for surfing.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Some people complained that the large bite taken out of the board was cartoonish and unrealistic. They were wrong. Bethany wrote later that she was calmer during the incident than the movie showed.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: And women. Bethany and her family are Church-going people attending Sunday services.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The epilogue features footage of the real Bethany Hamilton.
  • Revenge: Sort of. That very shark ends up being showed off as a trophy by some fishermen. However it is just a fish so it is not clear how much revenge one can get. More likely the emphasis was on getting a dangerous animal out of the water so it couldn't harm any more humans.
  • Scenery Dissonance: The shark attack happens on a beautiful sunny morning, just like it did in real life.
  • Scenery Porn: It's Hawaii. All of the scenery is gorgeous.
  • She's Back: Bethany doesn't get back onto the board until she helps out a young boy overcome his fear of the water by using a surfboard to go out into the water. Doubles as a "Eureka!" Moment as she realizes she can inspire people through this.
  • Talent Double: While AnnaSophia Robb plays Bethany in the dialogue, the actual Bethany was her own stunt double, conveniently being perfectly qualified, as well as saving the effects crew from having to erase a stunt double's arm like they did with AnnaSophia Robb. In other words, when you see the surfing scenes, you are actually watching Bethany Hamilton. And it doesn't look like it should be called "surfing". It should be called dancing on the water.
  • Threatening Shark: A tiger shark biting off Bethany's arm kickstarts the plot.
  • Training Montage: After turning to her father for help to get back in the competition, shots are shown of Bethany doing sit-ups and learning to balance again on her surf board without the use of her arm.
  • True Companions: Several overlapping groups; the Hamiltons and Blanchards, Bethany and her Church Youth Group, Bethany and her surfing buddies too.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Alana throws up on the beach after the shark attack, due to stress and trauma.
  • Walking Swimsuit Scene: Scenes where Bethany and Alana aren't wearing swimsuits of some kind can be counted on one hand, though it's justified given where they live (Hawaii), and what they are doing most of the time (surfing).