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April 8, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

AnnaSophia Robb

Soul Surfer is based on the story of Bethany Hamilton (portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb), who, while surfing at the age of 13, was attacked by a shark and lost most of her left arm — but within a few years became a champion surfer. It’s an inspirational tale that is being strongly promoted among church groups and is expected to attract crowds of believers. Several critics do not fall into that category. Among them is Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who has lost his voice and part of his jaw to cancer. “There had to be more to it than that,” he says of the story, which focuses on Bethany’s faith, optimism, and competitive spirit. “I feel something is missing. There had to be dark nights of the soul. Times of grief and rage. The temptation of nihilism. The lure of despair. Can a 13-year-old girl lose an arm and keep right on smiling? … The film feels more like an inspirational parable than a harrowing story of personal tragedy.” Lou Lumenick in the New York Post agrees, calling the film “terminally bland” and “shamelessly pandering to the elusive Christian family audience.” Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle passes over what he calls “the barrage of clumsy pro-Christian messages,” noting that the real Bethany has always been outspoken about her faith, but the script, he says, comes close to being “a complete wipeout.” On the other hand, the film has a fair share of believers, among them Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel who praises it as “the best faith-based film ever made, an uplifting, entertaining and wonderfully-acted account.” Andy Webster in the New York Times writes that the film succeeds as “a portrait of a spirited, resilient athlete.” And Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Times, as if he were responding to Ebert’s comments about the film, observes, “True, there’s neither a lot of grappling nor many dark nights of the soul on display here. … But if you’ve seen the real-life Hamilton on the ESPYs or the Teen Choice Awards, you know she’s as much a force of nature as the waves she rides.”