REVIEW: Soul Surfer

30 04 2017

I’ll go ahead and warn you that a good portion of this review won’t be dealing with the movie “Soul Surfer” at all. This inspirational sports movie about Bethany Hamilton, the 13-year-old who lost her arm to a shark while surfing, is so clichéd and by the book that it really isn’t worth discussing in depth. In short, it’s instantly forgettable because you’ve already seen it. You know what’s going to happen, so much so that I don’t even need to scream spoiler: she’s going to get back on the board, and she’s going to succeed.

At this point, you either know that you are going to be moved by this storyline or you aren’t.  Maybe there’s the exception for the sport that’s closest to your heart, but from “The Blind Side” to “Secretariat” to “Soul Surfer,” it’s all the same buttons being pushed. (Although now thanks to “The Blind Side,” these movies can delve into Christianity and religion without being thrown in the “Christian art” ghetto.) I’ve come to resist this maudlin and melodramatic sentimentalism because it’s just plain lazy filmmaking.

But in one of the final editions of Sports Illustrated in 2012, Brian Koppelman (writer/director of the decidedly forgettable “Solitary Man” – but also the showrunner of “Billions”) penned a passionate plea for Hollywood to keep churning out these color-by-numbers underdog stories. He talks about how sports movies “have a purity and truth that all too often professional and college sports no longer do” and that he’s “rooting for Hollywood to find a way to do the right thing and give us a few more of the transcendent film moments that only a sports movie can bring.”

Well, Mr. Koppelman, allow me to retort. (NOTE: I wrote this in 2013 and left it unpublished for four years. Retorting made more sense then.) I understand what good sports movies are supposed to do, and believe me, I’ve been moved by plenty of them from “Remember the Titans” to “Miracle.” But by now, the underdog champions have been crowned on screen for just about every sport.  Now, with “Soul Surfer,” we even have surfing.

The inspirational sports movie has run out of steam, and the formula has been hackneyed into a shell of its former self. When the western and the musical told all the stories people could stand, they slipped quietly into obscurity. I think it may be time for the sports movie to do the same, particularly those of the inspirational brand.

Now, a sort of revisionist strand of sports films have taken center stage. “The Fighter” is more about family than boxing, just as “Moneyball” is more about creative thinking than baseball. They have succeeded with audiences and critics because they use the familiar warmth of competitive athletics to bring about an entirely different sentiment.

So, Mr. Koppelman, there will always be the sports movie “classics” of the past for you to enjoy. With something for just about everyone now, the underdog story may have exhausted itself – but that’s only a natural progression. Whether it was the audiences or the industry that gave up on sports movies around the time of release of the generic “Soul Surfer,” I don’t particularly care. I just hope that we have all moved on to bigger and better things because the sports movie as it stands today is weighing us down in unnecessary banality.  B- / 2stars

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