I don’t know whether actors can tell how sloppy a movie is ultimately going to look when they’re on the set. Presumably, they trust the director to give them what they need. In the case of the seasoned cast members of the new family drama “Soul Surfer,’’ I’m guessing the director, Sean McNamara, trusted them to make him look good. McNamara’s done a lot of tween television, and he’s brought all the same food-processor editing, suffocating close-ups, and checkout-line songs to a movie about Bethany Hamilton, the 13-year-old competitive surfer who, in 2003, lost her left arm to a tiger shark.
AnnaSophia Robb plays Bethany. Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid play her surfer parents, and what they do is remarkable given the generic weakness of the material. McNamara telegraphs the shark attack at least twice before it happens, with ominous shots of human legs kicking underwater and that sort of thing. The news of the attack occurs right before father Hamilton is about to undergo knee surgery. The doctor (Craig T. Nelson) will need the operating room to save Bethany’s life. The Hamiltons are church-going Hawaiians, and the movie, which required four writers to adapt the book Bethany wrote with two other people, can’t decide how flagrantly Christian to make them. The media, however, are relentless. You can’t miss the look on the Hamiltons’ faces when Bethany returns home from the hospital and is mobbed by reporters: great, more sharks.
The actors, to their credit, play faith as the most normal thing in the world. Bethany is tough and home-schooled. I like that the movie doesn’t present this as either the most ideal or the strangest life for an adolescent. It’s normal for them. Before and after her accident, Bethany is well adjusted and in love with surfing. Hunt doesn’t work nearly enough, so her arrival in what feels like glorified ABC Family uplift is unexpected. Neither she nor Quaid has much to do, but they smile, cry, cheer, and ride surfboards with feeling. They’re especially good standing in the background, watching Bethany at press conferences or from the beach.
The best moments come when Robb’s all-purpose toughness experiences vulnerable doubt. These moments are flickers, but they’re bright and human. Bethany has only a stub jutting from her shoulder (it’s a so-so special effect). But after she relearns to chop fruit, it’s back to surfing, where she can notice the surf industry’s weird objectification of girls and resume sparring with her main rival. She comes to see herself as blessed. Faith for some is a combination of a belief in God and a belief in oneself. When Bethany goes from “How can this be God’s plan for me?’’ to “I don’t need easy, I just need possible,’’ I stopped rolling my eyes and just said, “Amen.’’