Thursday, May 19, 2011
"Soul Surfer" -- One of the best sports movies. EVER.
and without a doubt
THE BEST FEMALE SPORTS MOVIE
I personally can remember seeing
When you "preview" (ie my infamous "Coming Soon" quasi-posts) an upcoming film review --
Wait -- Stop right there.
I need to clarify -- I'm not entirely happy with the term "review." At least not for the purposes of this blog. These things will be more my... feelings and observations. My... reactions and responses. Let's go with that, shall we? I don't want to put myself forth as a professional film critic.
Quite the opposite, actually. I like to think of myself as just a viewer. And an amateur viewer, at that. I like to pretend that I never worked in this business -- insofar as my ability to view television programs and films is still (hopefully) the same as before I began working behind the camera as a writer, producer and director. I try to watch without a critical eye, and more of an open mind and heart... Hope that makes sense. I guess when I view TV and film, I like to return to the days when it was a magical experience that transported me out of my own life for a little while... an experience that was so miraculously transformative that it instilled in me a passion that ultimately guided me to my chosen career. So, with that said...here we go again:
When you preview an upcoming discussion of your reaction to a film by using the words "One of the Best..." followed up by "Ever," you kinda gotta get the follow-up out there into the world quickly so that your praise doesn't vanish into the ether like hyperbolic smoke you're blowing just to get attention.
You need to get to the specifics. You need to back up your (subjective but utterly valid!) opinion with evidence of your passion and some kind of explanation.
For those of you who've read my other blog and guest posts, you already know that a want for words isn't my problem. But at this blog, I will endeavor to get to my points quickly. These aren't the ravings of my subconscious -- these are my attempts to encourage you to see a particular film or TV show. And mind you, no one is paying me to do this, so I have nothing to gain except that I think it's critically urgent that good work is supported because 1: it's good work, and 2: it perpetuates the possibility of more good work being done. It shows that audiences aren't utterly vapid and still long for and appreciate smart, artistic and entertaining enterprises that say something and touch us.
In this particular case, it's Soul Surfer. And because it's already been in release for a little while, I feel compelled to get this post published asap so some of you can still catch it before it leaves the theaters.
I freely admit that I had never read any reviews from this film prior to seeing it. (Nor the book, also entitled Soul Surfer, which I hear is incredible, and I intend to buy it immediately for my 9 yr old daughter.) But as there is so little for kids and tweens out there in the multiplexes, all I needed was to hear from one or two moms that "the shark bite thing" is "really quick and not too scary" and that was pretty much that.
In case you don't know -- Soul Surfer is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, the young woman who made news headlines back in 2003 when the then thirteen year old's arm was bitten off by a shark while she was surfing off the coast of Hawaii, where she and her family live. The miracle was not only that she survived... but eventually returned to competitive surfing. Though I didn't see any of the interviews she gave at the time, it had somehow reached the cultural consciousness that here was a kid with an inner strength and spirit and will far beyond her years.
But what this movie depicts so movingly and inspiringly (if that isn't a real word, I don't care -- it fits) is that her strength and spirit and will aren't just beyond her years, they're beyond any years. They are beyond being defined in relation to her age or gender. Here, quite simply, is a human being who refused to be trounced by the odds, who refused to surrender anything more than the limb stolen from her, and ultimately triumphed in every conceivable way. And though the movie isn't what I would call perfect, and some moments in the script are weak or predictable, these flaws are far overshadowed by its strengths.
Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid play Bethany's parents, two life-long surfers whose relationship seems almost suspiciously healthy and happy as they instill strong Christian values and a love of surfing in their three children: two sons and youngest daughter Bethany... who is portrayed as being at least as comfortable in the water as out of it, and began surfing competitively at the age of 8. And admittedly, I was skeptical. The "screenwriter" in me was like -- oooh, here we go -- set them up as happy, then watch them fall apart when the shit hits the fan. And the "realist" in me was like, "yeah, right! a family that gets along so well! c'mon!" But I tried to drown out all those voices and just settle in and ride the wave... (sorry, had to do it.. couldn't help myself) and anyway, who knows -- maybe a family that lives in a gorgeous place like Hawaii and shares a common passion (like surfing) really does have a great relationship. But frankly, all this stuff can be overlooked because the stuff that works well in this movie makes you forget anything that could be perceived as cheesy.
So from here, I'm going to skip most of the plot analysis, because it can be boiled down to this: up-and-coming surfer is bitten by shark, faces challenges in overcoming life with only one arm, hits some seriously rough patches -- physically, emotionally and spiritually -- trying to return to first some semblance of normalcy, then surfing, but ultimately succeeds. Throughout this, we see her friends, family and community pull together in support of Bethany as she recovers, the compassionate suffering of these same friends and family as they feel for Bethany's plight, and of course (in addition to the shark) there is a sort of "villain" in the piece, a powerful and aggressive surfer who is seen as Bethany's greatest rival on the surfing circuit. (PS -- the fact that Bethany could have been a male surfer and the story would not have changed ONE BIT is key to its sheer awesomeness).
This is all sort of (forgive me, Bethany) standard story-structure stuff. But it's not the structure that makes this film outstanding. Once again, it's not a story, but how it's told. Yes, folks, it's all in the delivery of it. But really, because this is a true story, it's all in the LIVING of it. Which Bethany Hamilton continues to do. And does it so much better than the rest of us, and in such a way that rather than making us feel inferior, she makes us want to do better, to be better. She shows us what humanity can be at its best... and also, how athletics and sports can often be the way in which this can be achieved and demonstrated. For more proof of this, you can visit Bethany at her website.
So here, in short, are some of the noteworthy things that make this film work so damn well:
The portayal of Bethany's relationship with Alana Blanchard (played with an appealing genuineness by Lorraine Nicholson), a life-long friend and fellow surfer . And this is one of the places where the movie begins to show just how unique and extraordinary it is... by deftly treating something as ordinary. Here are two attractive young girls and there is no cattiness, no pettiness; they are not boy crazy, slutty, overly preoccupied by their clothes or appearances. Their friendship is solid. And they tackle some truly challenging moments with maturity and caring. NO ONE portrays women, especially young ones, like that. With such realism, with such a lack of scandal. With such an utter lack of melodrama and artifice. And this film does it WITH EASE. Such ease that everyone else who distorts adolescent girls into sit-com idiots should be ASHAMED. (Are you listening, Nick and Disney?? I know my kids love your tv programs, but seriously? This is the best you can do??)
And here is where this becomes one of the best female sports movies... EVER. Alana and Bethany share a passion for surfing. And yet....their gender is never made a big deal of. We see men and women surfing throughout this film, and the fact that they are women is almost never mentioned. They are simply SURFERS. They are athletes. Their triumphs and their failures and their challenges are never attributed to their genders. We see them work their asses off. But no one ever says: Wow, I'm a girl, so I have to work twice as hard! Whoa is me! (And you can bet your life that Bethany Hamilton never says it). No one ever says: Wow, she surfs really well, and she's a girl! Who'd a thunk it????
After Bethany loses her arm one day (the specifics of which I will get to in a moment, just for those parents deciding whether or not it's appropriate for their kids) while out surfing with Alana and Alana's father (nicely played by Kevin Sorbo) and her brother, her biggest concern is not "can I surf again?" but "when can I surf again?" It never enters her mind to give up her greatest joy. Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, there are scenes that show the difficulties Bethany has trying to do the most basic of things with only one arm -- making lunch, getting dressed... putting her hair into a ponytail -- but none of it is done melodramatically. This is simply the reality of her new situation. And her frustration is understandable. Here was a very independent girl who suddenly needs help. And she'll be damned if she'll ask for it.
As powerfully portrayed by the talented actress Annasophia Robb, Bethany never plays the victim... rarely takes a moment to pity herself... so when she does finally breakdown in bewilderment as to why God has let this happen to her, questioning how this could be his "plan" for her... her Church's youth leader Sarah (played with a believable sweetness by Carrie Underwood) admits that she simply doesn't know. And that, too, is great. There are no pat answers or melodramatic monologues here. There are no hysterics, either. (Though occasionally some of the parents' dialogue and interactions are unfortunately stereotypical and predictable). People face their realities, and bravely. Not that they aren't fearful or scared... but they persist. And that is bravery. Not lacking fear, but continuing on in spite of it.
Since everyone knows that Bethany does indeed return to the world of surfing, I don't consider mentioning that fact a spoiler. The joy and beauty of this film is in watching how she gets there. In seeing her travel to Thailand after the tsunami to help others in need. To seeing the journey she takes, spiritually and physically.
Her will to not only surf, but to excel at it, would humble any pro athlete, though no doubt they would understand it. What Soul Surfer does is remind us that the best athletes aren't just examples of strong bodies with a superior skill set; the best athletes have incredible will-power and faith in themselves, faith in a work ethic and discipline -- that if you put in the time and effort, you'll reap a reward, whereas so many other people simply quit before they begin, psyching themselves out with: "It's too hard, it's not possible..." and other similarly self-defeating thoughts (aka excuses.)
See this movie, and you will find it hard to utter those words again, to entertain those thoughts, without feeling at least a twinge of shame.
So -- at this point, until someone reminds me of another film, I'm calling Soul Surfer the greatest movie about a female athlete EVER, because it isn't about a female athlete at all. It's about an incredible surfer who touches everyone she meets and makes them want to be better people -- man or woman, boy or girl. Who does better and more with one arm than most people do with two.
And it is one of the greatest sports movies ever because it portrays what the rigors and discipline of athletics can do to raise us up, to create and foster a believe in one's self. Not to be better athletes, or to triumph at a particular sport, but to simply BE the best that we can be -- as a species.
***Now, for those parents curious about "the shark bite thing," here's my quick take: you barely see the shark coming. The minutes before the incident are not fraught with tension. You won't be uncomfortably on the edge of your seat the entire time. And when it happens... you glimpse the shark... and then -- it's gone. But -- there is a fair amount of blood in the water. I have a child who cannot stand the sight of blood, and this was tough for her. But they don't focus on the injury to her body... It isn't graphic. However, the next few minutes are quite tense as they race to the hospital to save her. And if you have very sensitive kids, as I do, watching the stress on her family and friends, and watching Bethany finally lose consciousness after a valiant fight to stay calm and alert, is fairly upsetting. And then... it's over. She comes through... but without an arm.
My advice is to discuss this all with your kids ahead of time. To take them through it step by step BEFORE seeing the film. Unlike adults, they'll still wanna see it and won't feel like you've ruined it for them. Though my kids were definitely freaked out by the whole thing, that was counterbalanced by how great the film was and how Bethany succeeds in the end. (something I also mentioned beforehand, ie "Don't worry, she ends up being better than fine and becomes a kick-ass surfer in real life. Seriously. You'll see!") My kids worried they'd have nightmares... but by the next day, they didn't even mention it. So my take? It's well worth it. My son is 6 and my daughter is 9. I know of other 6 yr olds who saw it as well, and they still loved the film. My advice -- see this film.*****
And if you've missed this in the theaters -- see it on DVD. You'll be glad you did. You have no idea of the impact it might have on you or your children. But odds are, its lessons will stay with all of you, long after it fades out.