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SOUL SURFING

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 26, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The documentary ‘Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable,’ which has been playing in local theaters for a couple of weeks now, brought to mind this Deseret News column, published April 29, 2011, under the headline ‘Why do films fight tide of Christianity?’ — about the faith film ‘Soul Surfer,’ which told Hamilton’s story but which also had a curious censorship battle that I compared to another 2011 picture, ‘Win Win.’ (By the way, ‘Soul Surfer’ is available on Blu-ray, DVD and various streaming sites.)

There’s a pair of emotionally charged feel-good movies in town right now, each with a sports component and each guaranteed to make you care about the characters.

The surfing drama “Soul Surfer” and the wrestling comedy-drama “Win Win” also have something to say about the family dynamic, suggesting that children thrive in a supportive environment with loving parents and siblings, that they grow up healthier, with a better chance at life.

Obviously, these movies are about bigger issues than the sports that provide the action scenes — and neither has the cliché of the central athlete taking the first-place prize in the race-to-the-finish competitions near the end.

But you will still cheer, and possibly tear up, at their resilient resolutions.

In terms of specific content, however, the two films tellingly diverge. “Soul Surfer” is rated PG and has a Christian component, while “Win Win” is rated R and has plenty of foul language, including a lot of f-words.

There is also an enormous difference in the way the two films have been treated by both Hollywood studios and national movie critics.

The creators of “Soul Surfer” had to battle with producers over several specific moments in the film in order obtain a wide theatrical release, and it has received just as many brickbats as cheers from critics.

“Win Win” on the other hand was funded and distributed by a studio, released without any challenges to content and has been endorsed by critics pretty much across the board.

     

Bethany Hamilton, left, in 2011 with teenage actress AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Hamilton in 'Soul Surfer.'

But here’s the really interesting part: What “Soul Surfer’s” producers/distributors were wary of, and what they wanted to water down, were the film’s Christian elements — to make it more acceptable to a mainstream audience. Even going so far as to digitally remove the name “Holy Bible” from a book someone is reading in the hospital! (Though cooler heads prevailed and it was later restored.)

Yet no one felt it was necessary to tone down the language in “Win Win” to make it more acceptable to a mainstream audience. (It would not have taken much editing to go from R to PG-13.)

This says a lot about Hollywood and why so many faithful churchgoers are suspicious of, if not downright antagonistic toward, the motion-picture industry, which so often wallows in graphic violence, sex, vulgarity, drug usage and foul language.

And which does so more and more each year, especially in PG-13 movies aimed at teens, which is distressing for both parents and general moviegoers who have become weary of such relentless excess; Christians and non-Christians.

But it is curious that Hollywood is so afraid of religious content. There was a time when movies regularly showed its characters going to church and conferring with clergy. In fact, it was shown so often and so casually in so many films that it was taken for granted.

There were also a lot of movies from Hollywood studios that dealt directly with church and clergy or with angels and God in ways that were positive and uplifting rather than mean-spirited and nasty, as is often the case today.

In fact, Bing Crosby won an Oscar for playing a compassionate Catholic priest, Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn famously played sincere nuns in different films, Jimmy Stewart’s “Wonderful Life” was rescued by an angel, Cary Grant played an angel in another holiday picture. I even remember one film from my youth in which God’s voice came through a radio to offer a message to a faithful family.

But today, clergy of every stripe are portrayed as duplicitous, if not downright evil; angels are marauders out to destroy instead of encourage and uplift; and God, if He’s around at all, is angry, vengeful, destructive, or perhaps indifferent.

When we do see positive movies about Christian characters, they are independent productions. Hollywood won’t touch them. Which, given the number of moviegoers who are among the faithful, seems especially misguided.

And such is the case with “Soul Surfer,” the real-life story of Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), a teenager who lives to surf and dreams of going professional — until that dream is (temporarily) derailed at age 13, when she loses her arm in a shark attack. Eventually she does get back up on the board and goes professional.

It’s the kind of survival/comeback story that Hollywood loves. What’s more, it’s true, and a lot of people are aware of it, as it received a great deal of publicity at the time. And some of the major movie studios did see the potential for a hit film — but they balked at the Christian subtext.

The Hamilton family, as shown in the film, goes to church together, prays over a meal and reads the Bible.

Bethany is also close to the church youth counselor (played by singer Carrie Underwood, whom many critics have unfairly vilified in her first acting role). And in what is arguably the film’s most powerful sequence, Bethany travels to Thailand with the youth group to do charity work and has a moment of clarity about her situation.

     

Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Bethany Hamilton's parents in 'Soul Surfer' (2011).

Because her faith is a matter-of-fact part of her life, it naturally plays a big part in her rehabilitation, which I did not find at all heavy-handed, despite some critics’ comments to the contrary.

Other critics have also complained that the film’s special effects — the shark attack, Bethany’s subsequent missing arm — are weak. But they looked fine to me. And I’ve read many reviews where critics have cut a lot of slack for worse things in low-budget movies.

“Soul Surfer” is not without its flaws. The dialogue could be better. And I was put off by Bethany’s main competitor, a surly girl who is very much a movie-cliché “type” rather than a character of any dimension. But in the end, that’s merely carping.

There is so much to enjoy and cheer in “Soul Surfer” that I find the vitriol spewed by some of the major movie critics to be quite perplexing.

As for Hollywood, any studio’s reluctance to release this film — or any film — based strictly on its Christian content is clearly wrongheaded.