The Heathen’s Guide to Christian Film: Soul Surfer

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Soul Surfer is a unique entry in the quickly expanding catalogue of Christian films. Unlike most films of its genre, it’s clear that this film intended to tap the secular teen/tween market first, and the Christian market only afterwards. But unlike most mass audience films with bonus Christian pandering, the faith-based plot in Soul Surfer isn’t an afterthought. It’s fully, blatantly integrated into the plot in a way that most mainstream directors wouldn’t have dared allow. And while it was a choice that was basically irrelevant to nonbelievers like me, I have a feeling that in ten years or so, Soul Surfer will be seen as revolutionary in the growing Christian market, for being one of the first Christian films to truly bridge the evangelical-versus-secular divide.

Soul Surfer is essentially a textbook sports comeback story: an up-and-coming athlete suffers a setback that causes her to lose faith and quit the sport–but of course she ultimately returns to it a few inspirational, sweaty training montages later, culminating in some sort of Big Competition that she either wins or gracefully loses (complete with life lessons learned, “I’m a better person for having been here,” and so on, future success implied). In this case, the up-and-coming athlete is Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfer growing up in Hawaii with a loving family and an aspiring surfer of a best friend. The setback is the loss of her arm in a shark attack, but she doesn’t let that stop her. After becoming inspired by the simple joy she sees in Thai children playing in the water on a mission trip, she returns to surfing, just in time for the big girls’ surfing competition on the island.

The Hawaii scenery was, of course, beautiful, and the story was adequately entertaining, albeit conventional. But the film suffered from a number of the same problems more blatantly Christian films usually struggle with. The most blatant to me, and one that I haven’t seen a single Christian movie manage to sidestep, is its outdated attitudes to race. Not to say that mainstream Hollywood doesn’t have issues with this–it does–but Christian filmmakers usually seem to be a decade or two behind them, cheerfully employing tropes like the Magical Negro or setting up white man’s burden-style plots with an enthusiasm that would make savvier secular filmmakers (or at least their backers) cringe. Its the latter that’s in play here, when in the wake of Bethany’s quitting surfing, she goes to Thailand on a mission trip after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The Thai people are shown only to further Bethany’s journey; seeing them devastated convinces her that her own problems are small. There’s even a scene where she’s depicted as singlehandedly convincing a village of terrified Thai folks to go back into the ocean for the first time after the tsunami. Good thing she was there to save them! Otherwise they might never have made it back into the water, and then what?

The other problem with Soul Surfer–and one that pops up again and again in Christian films–is that it’s just not willing to go rough on its characters. Granted, this is based on a true story, and the real Bethany Hamilton claims that the movie already depicts her as more down-and-out than she actually was. In real life, she claims, she didn’t spend her time in the hospital worrying about whether she’d ever surf again or if boys would date a girl with one arm, she was visiting with church friends and playing practical jokes on the nurses. Unfortunately, church friends and practical jokes don’t make for a good movie. The film’s conflict was repeatedly underplayed–at one point I turned to my movie-watching companion and wondered if we were going to get any at all, since even the stuff that would sideline a normal person didn’t phase Movie Bethany for more than a minute or two. It was like the writers were scared to let any of their characters experience any real suffering–unfortunate, since it’s much easier to empathize with a character who suffers than one who reacts to misery with a Christ-like patience and understanding.

Daniel Radosh touched on this in his review of Fireproof: “Committed to promoting an unambiguous message that God solves all problems, Fireproof never portrays Christians doing anything untoward, or even experiencing any sorrow. . . In the perfect world of Fireproof, good Christians do not have bad marriages, any more than they drink, gamble or swear.” And in the perfect world of Soul Surfer, good Christians don’t have unhappy families or romantic problems. Everyone is beautiful, the skies are always blue and the water’s always fine. As Bethany claims as the film draws to a close, losing an arm didn’t just not change her life–it made it better. Had this not been based on a true story, the scriptwriters probably would have had Jesus come down from heaven to regrow Bethany’s arm personally. Who wants to watch that? In Christian films, the suspense is eliminated. A happy–nay, perfect–ending is guaranteed. The Garden of Eden restored, at last.

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