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Catching her wave

Movies | Soul Surfer portrays the comeback spirit and faith of shark attack survivor and champion surfer Bethany Hamilton

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

NEW YORK-Rich Peluso, vice president of Affirm Films, a Sony Pictures label that releases Christian films, was getting a cup of coffee when he noticed on the wall of the local coffee shop a poster of Bethany Hamilton, a girl who lost her arm in a shark attack but went on to become a professional surfer. Then a friend told Peluso he'd heard Affirm Films was going to make a movie about Hamilton's story. It wasn't true, but Peluso immediately inquired and found that the script was languishing at his office. No one else was interested, but Peluso dug out the box of scripts, called his boss and said, "We have got to make this movie."

Soul Surfer proves that a film with unabashed Christian elements can attract big-name talent like Carrie Underwood, Dennis Quaid, and Helen Hunt while winning at the box office. Although it was originally going to appear at just a few hundred theaters, on its opening weekend in April Soul Surfer earned $11.1 million and the highest per-theater average of any new wide release. The project "lived and died" more than once, Peluso said, but like Hamilton herself, the film bounced back.

The film begins with Hamilton at age 13, already a champion surfer who has been winning trophies since she was 9. On an idyllic Hawaii day, she is practicing for her next competition when a shark strikes, ripping off her left arm. She makes a quick physical recovery and is back on her surfboard just weeks later, but her spiritual recovery is more complicated as she struggles to believe she can-and should-keep surfing.

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Soul Surfer does not dilute the faith that keeps Hamilton and her family strong-a priority for director Sean McNamara, who refused to work with writers who didn't understand that faith was central to the story. Hamilton-who is now a 21-year-old woman with tan skin and honey-blonde hair-said that she and her family read and corrected scores of bad scripts, including some that downplayed their faith.

In one of the first scenes, Hamilton (Anna Sophia Robb) hurries out of the water and straight to an outdoor church service where her youth group leader Sarah Hill (Underwood in her film debut) is singing, "Blessed Be Your Name." The film is true to the spiritual story even down to the small details, like the scripture the real Hill told Hamilton's family on the day of the shark attack. At the New York premiere, Hill recalled that the ambulance passed her just as Hamilton's brother, Noah, called with the news. She followed it to the hospital, praying for the right words and sharing the scripture that eventually comforts Hamilton's character in the film: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11).

Arlene Newman Van-Asperen, who plays the mother of Hamilton's best surfer friend, said she now tells Hamilton's story to the children she teaches at Vacation Bible School. It reminds her, "I can handle my little things." Kevin Sorbo, who plays the family friend who saves the surfer's life after the attack, says he remembers hearing the story of the attack in 2003 and being angry that something so terrible would happen to a young girl. The real story, he found, is her comeback: "She goes out there and shows the world she can be a beacon for God and a beacon for Jesus."

Hamilton was the stunts double for Anna Sophia Robb, the young actress who plays her, and filmed the surfing scenes herself. These scenes make some of the film's best moments and its finest cinematography. As Hamilton runs her fingers along a wall of water while surfing straight through the "tube" of a breaking wave, we know why she wanted to jump back out there. And thanks to the film's integrity in portraying her faith, we also know how.


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