Monday, April 18, 2011

Soul Surfer

Expectations can make or break a film. This is what good movie trailers are supposed to do--create hype, buzz, and anticipation, putting an audience on the edge of their seat before they even purchase the movie ticket. One's expectations and worldview will likely affect your view of the newest Christian film, Soul Surfer.

"Christian film." That's a very loaded term these days. It draws to mind positive implications (family friendly, lots of Scripture, good morals) and plenty of negative ones (low budget, cheesy acting, heavy-handed message). The snarky side of me thinks that a Christian film is a movie who put its faith and trust in Jesus as its Savior and gets to be viewed in heaven when it dies. I don't remember who originally said it, but it's worth repeating: "Christian" is a great noun, but not a very good adjective. Instead of making great "Christian films," perhaps its better to have artistic and creative Christians creating beautiful films. In a recent article for Relevant, Scott Nehring writes, "When a Christ-follower produces a film that speaks to Biblical truth and morality, he has made a Christian film. The product itself should not carry the label; the artist is the Christ-follower. His fruit will bear His name." In this way, truth is embodied in the creation—the incarnation—of the filmmaker, as opposed to truth being a heavy-handed message or an evangelistic tool. Scripture states that we are in a broken world in need of grace and redemption through the incarnated person of Christ. As N.T. Wright states in Surprised by Hope, “when art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission."

Soul Surfer certainly doesn't shy away from either wounds or the promise of hope. It tells the amazing true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton, who became a media phenomenon back in 2003 when, at the age of 13, she lost her left arm in a shark attack. Her family's Christian faith and her determination to keep surfing were deeply inspiring, and Bethany used her newfound fame as a platform for sharing her faith in Christ. Bethany is wonderfully portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb, whose authentic performance holds the entire film together. Bethany has an unwavering faith in the midst of tragedy, and while she must wrestle with some deep wounds--physical and emotional--her ultimate identity is found in Christ. The film's family-focus doesn't come off as saccharine or sentimental, nor does its Christian undertones denote a heavy-handedness. On the contrary, it feels quite natural and authentic, revealing that there might actually be solid Christian families who pray and read the Bible and go to church without being cheesy or ignorant. A particularly touching scene involves the family sitting down to pray over a meal after Bethany's return from the hospital. Realizing that they cannot hold hands in prayer as they once did, a beautiful moment of grace occurs when Bethany places her mother's hand on her scarred shoulder. The most tear-inducing moments were the home videos of Bethany's real-life family in the closing credits, especially Bethany's authentic confession of Christ in numerous public appearances.

Soul Surfer is a great true story embodied in a good film. If you're looking for cheesy or stilted acting like in many other Christian films, you'll find some examples here. Most notable is Carrie Underwood's debut performance as Bethany's youth pastor, who comes across as stiff during some of the most tender and spiritually-significant moments in the story. As a youth pastor, I was hoping our vocation could have come across as more inspiring and gracious, but that was likely due to an inadequate script and not necessarily Underwood's acting. Yet the performances from AnnaSophia as Bethany, Dennis Quaid as her father, and Lorraine Nicholson as Bethany's best friend are all solid and affecting. In terms of quality, the filmmakers did incredibly well with a tight budget and far too many voices in the mix--Soul Surfer has seven writers and an astounding 21 producers. Steven Greydanus points out that the editing and CGI work to remove AnnaSophia's arm in post-production is quite the technical feat with all the movement involved with filming in water. There are moments where you can tell it's CGI, but those are few, and AnnaSophia truly looks like she has lost her arm. The film's quality definitely exceeded my expectations, especially some beautiful underwater shots of deep-blue waves breaking in the surf.

As a pastor to teens, I found Bethany to be an inspiring example for young Christians to look to, especially for young women. She was 13-years-old when she lost her arm, the age of many girls in my junior high ministry. The experience would have been traumatic at any age, but her faith in Christ and her deep passion for surfing reveal a maturity beyond her years, a childlike faith that transcends many adults' spirituality. She is a strong Christian leader without sacrificing her faith or femininity. This would be a great film to show to a group of young teen women with a myriad of great discussion topics (I've added the film to my list of youth ministry movies you can show to your youth group). As a filmophile, I was forced to repent of my frustration with Christian films and recognize that this was a good film, that families will benefit from watching it together, and that I might have even been a bit inspired by Bethany Hamilton's story. We have a long way to go in the world of Christian filmmaking, but Soul Surfer could be a good step in the right direction.

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