"Soul Surfer" begins like most other coming-of-age movie dramas. A young heroine, surfer girl Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), sketches out the details of her sunny life in a quick voice-over. She lives on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, has a loving family and, from the moment she rode her first wave, knew she wanted to be a pro surfer.
"It's my passion, my way of life," Bethany says with matter-of-fact conviction.
We then see Bethany practicing her passion in the Pacific and next thing you know, she's slipping on a sundress and (wait a minute, what's this?) joining her family at an outdoor church service, where Carrie Underwood, playing a youth group leader, is singing. And five minutes in, even if you don't know Hamilton's rather remarkable story, you realize the conflict in this movie might not come from a boy or a parent or from buying the wrong bikini.
It's going to come from God, and it's going to address the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people.
Now, before we get too existential here, realize that the people posing the question in "Soul Surfer" are the creative folks behind "Baywatch," the live-action "Bratz" movie and innumerable Disney Channel sitcoms. That "Soul Surfer" rates as a giant leap for this team speaks well about the conviction the movie's actors bring to the material as well as the respect afforded the Hamiltons and their faith.
The Hamiltons' lives were shaken when a 14-foot tiger shark ripped off Bethany's arm during a morning surf nearly eight years ago. She lost 60% of her blood, but survived. Recovering, Bethany discovered she lost something else that day — her identity as an up-and-coming surfer.
"How could this be God's plan for me?" Bethany asks. Her parents, played with tremendous feeling by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, offer support but also know that their daughter will need time and space to work through her issues of image and faith.
True, there's not a lot of grappling or many dark nights of the soul on display here. Part of this is a function of the writers' (four are credited) penchant for mining the most obvious aspects of Hamilton's story in ways that sometimes feel rushed. But if you've seen the real-life Hamilton on the ESPYs or Nickelodeon's Teen Choice awards, you know she's as much a force of nature as the waves she rides.
And yes, that's Hamilton, or at least her body, performing most of her own surfing scenes. L.A.-based effects company Engine Room later morphed Robb's head onto Hamilton's body, and digitally removed one of Robb's arms throughout the film. As for the shark attack, you don't see much, and it's over in six minutes.
"Soul Surfer" owns its PG rating, not to mention its Christian themes, proudly.