Bethany Hamilton's "Soul Surfer" (2011) biographical movie [review]

I now sat down to watch Bethany Hamilton's "Soul Surfer" movie [SONY]. It is relevant to pay attention to possibly faked (or real) arm amputees in the media and, particularly, in movies. They shape our image of us ; )

In a nutshell, she advises to pray, surf, work and love.

Apparently it is a movie to convey a message of empowerment - and I found that in fact it is. And apparently she is addressing the rest of the world, the Dylans, the Logans, the Stephanies, (and anyone else who is a fan of her) - and that really is a nice thing to do. Doing so without asking, that's what she is doing : ) The world needs more people like that.

Really, the movie is a docu drama to tell the story of Bethany Hamilton that got bitten by a shark at the age of 13 while already living the life of a soon-to-become pro surfer in Hawaii.

So from a purely subjective point of view, I will comment some aspects of what I saw in that movie, and how I relate to it.

Surfing movies often are cool to watch and to get a comparison, why not check out "Blue Crush" for example. Surfing is also a comprehensive way of life, not a pastime or hobby. Bethany Hamilton is the daughter of a family that embraces surfing as a comprehensive way of life. Given that, her affinity to surfing isn't really very hard to understand.

Body core strength

Definitely this movie highlights that after losing an arm or so, you will have to work really hard to get your body stability and balance back. Bethany Hamilton must have found out real early, like, when getting out of bed or when getting up from a chair but she really must have figured it out when trying to get good control over her board back.

From my experience, balance is definitely an issue, even missing part of an arm will throw one off balance quite a bit. It took me certainly about two years to get back to a basic feeling of real and solid stability (but then, I work > 100% with on-calls, and I am over 40 years old, if you have a lot of time to do sports and are younger then you have an advantage). Getting back to skiing took me a while, running took a while, getting up fast at night took a while to feel stable too.

And then it is really easy to get addicted there - body core strength training is probably one of the most powerful anti-depressants there ever are. I never feel as re-centered around a very stable mood than after extensive core strength focus with specific swim sets that I'd do [or, as for the first time this year, I'd take a Lunocet 015 out for a spin or two]. Others prefer Pilates, and I am sure surfing has that effect if it is done extensively. The feeling that you can eek out from absolutely excessive core strength training in my view beats loads of other options to do something about a depressed mood. I find the impact on one's permanently shattered soul is huge. And then, upper extremity amputees have a particularly high incidence of depression, treating or even pre-emptively avoiding it by doing massive body core strength centered sports seems to make a lot of sense.

Faith, meditation, silence, instincts

Definitely, trust and faith - such as faith in yourself, or also religious faith - can have an impact on what you see yourself doing, what you start trying out to do and how you go about it.

The best way to convey trust and faith in thenselves to others is achieved by showing things, by visually showing things, by demonstrating accomplishment - not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. Personally, I tend to not believe a thing that other amputees are cited or referred to have been doing. I do need to see it. Seeing it makes it irrefutable. I need to be able to take it in visually, and after that I want to hear or read the story that goes with it.

Bethany seems to have picked that one important truth up that seeing is indeed believing. Maybe it was when she was in Thailand as the movie appears to suggest - she then must have found out that she can show the world a lot more by being and surfing herself (and by being seen doing it well) than through any other means. At the age of 13 or so that's a rather mature thing to be realizing and targeting and it seems that her family really provided great support. I cannot see anyone recovering their soul so fast that does not have massive outside support. Now, she definitely seems to manage to impress people. Just being there, staying here, surfing and participating conveys friendly strength. And so now, Youtube is full of Bethany smiling and being nice, she has her own website, Facebook page and Twitter, she is everywhere nicely answering interview questions and obviously a world class surfer - but actually, her father Tom Hamilton's way of telling his version was who really impressed me most:

So Bethany Hamilton seems to have a rather well established social community that holds and carries her.

She appears to have very well developed instincts - about all kinds of things, about waves, sea, surfing, competitions, timing, but also about other people, about humanity as such. Mostly, about surfing though. The more intricate questions however may start a tad bit later in life. So, what when we are 25? What when we are 40? That is what we all prepare for while 15 and 20, sort of. But, way to go.

Loss of a limb can be a real bitch, permanently. It confounded and confounds me and irritates and irritated other people and myself to no end. The hard part however is not letting any such distractors pull one away from what one really is about. Then, instincts can tell one what to do. One just has to actively send any such distraction or people that are distracting, pulling one down or creating more noise than anything else into the outer perimeter and create the silence necessary to listen to them, and suppress the distraction. This movie shows that in a very abridged but beautiful way - faith, meditation and reflection, values, respect, very hard work and trust - those are the way to go. Also, absence of competing interests and strengths are a big aspect, and maybe Hawaii's surf options surpass anything else the region has to offer.

If there ever was stuff worth doing, I also had to accept that deep down, I already knew all my life what these things worth doing were - before or after amputation. The hard part may be to create the meditative calm to find your way back there. If you are, say, a water person, there you go, then that's what's hopefully going to happen.

Hard work, hard work

Finding out what direction to go, creating peace and calm, that is just one obstacle to pass.

Actually getting back on your feet and staying there requires quite a bit of work. This movie just hints at that - but that is the reality. Bethany Hamilton is shown doing push ups, pull ups and other exercises and in fact that is where amputees will spend more time than other people simply to stay in shape.

Even though staying fit requires hard and extra work, there are things people did already as kids, and kept doing - not just because they had to or because they were good at it, but first and foremost because they really loved doing it. Then invariably they have the capacity to get really good at it.

That is what Bethany Hamilton means by the term "Soul Surfer" - find out what you are passionate about doing, and then work very hard to do that. In that sense, recovery from serious injury is both physically and emotionally challenging and a lot of work, I would say.


Bethany Hamilton, according to the movie, was offered a prosthetic arm and then rejected it. For public appearances she usually flashes her scar and disability. It is an unanswerable question - who are we? Of course Bethany Hamilton is a surfer who, for getting in and out of the water, does not need a prosthetic arm. I don't wear my arm for beach, pool or water activities either. But there is life besides that and why it then is absolutely necessary to not wear a prosthetic arm for other activities - giving interviews, making public appearances, et cetera - is beyond me. It takes so little time to put on or take of a prosthetic arm that the act as such doesn't even merit any specific comment.

Prosthetics are not made to be worn by everyone or to be worn all the time anyway. They just constitute an option, an optional way of living. They can be adopted part-time, too, one does not have to decide for or against a prosthetic, one may very well have one sit around and then use it on any given occasion. In fact, having a temporary limb on means one can take it off relatively fast, too. It is not implanted or stuck there. People for some reason may think a prosthetic arm is stuck there - but the technical beauty is that for almost all amputees it is not.

With Bethany Hamilton's life style, in and out of the water, and loss of the whole arm, a prosthetic arm will not at all be very helpful generally, and her decision to not use one for surfing and for her Hawaiian life style seems to make real sense. Yet, there is life other than the permanent surf and to not wear a prosthetic arm for a TV interview (in case, *poof*, a wave would suddenly shoot up through the floor and there would be frantic calls *is there a pro surfer in the house*) seems not to be as adequate as it seems to be to not wear one on the surf board.

Prosthetics can deliver other aspects of wellness - one is to get one's back and neck to be more symmetric, as counterweight. Another is to cover up the stump, not always too adequate to be shown in full sight. And the type of amputation plays a big role what ends up being the way to go - my arm was amputated at a level and in a fashion that made it particularly well-suited for prosthetic fitting. To no surprise, a prosthetic arm is something I find both relatively comfortable and useful.

Then, prosthetic arms are not something that are just done in one particular way. For skiing, I love the prosthetic as it does provide a great counterweight and definitely more stability but quite obviously one could level the asymmetry out differently.

Some people flash their stumps as they think wearing a prosthetic is not "who" they are. Yet, a prosthesis can be greatly personalized and individualized - it is a matter of actually doing it if you get a good result or not. I always felt imprisoned by design issues though and what did kick my butt was the PVC or silicone based "skin resemblance". So I started to create my Red Hand series that contains a sequence of artistic try-outs, tests, lately an industrial creation of custom made specific red PVC gloves that Centri (Sweden) was generous enough to fabricate and sell me. Also, other functional problems kicked my butt so I redesigned these parts, or friends of mine did it, or so.

And in the end we see that what we always did and loved, in our lives, will come back and haunt us later. So growing up in Hawaii may instill you with great instincts for wave surfing. Growing up surrounded by manufacturing options makes you confident in redesigning prosthetic arm parts.

Along the same lines, anyone could wear a prosthetic Rip Curl or Nike arm. And I wonder when these companies will pull through with their timid design attempts.

Do things on your own or not

Some things you have to do on your own. The movie suggests that Bethany figured it all out on her own, with little help from others - mainly, her dad. It suggests that she sees a prosthetic arm as something from the outside that is meant to be accepted or rejected.

There are things though that others went through as well and from my experience, both networking, meeting others, asking their opinion and working together is a better way to solve problems. It may be a different path and it may even take a bit more time, but it also has the capacity to help others benefit from solutions that we worked on, and it allows me to see things differently that I had not considered before. Wearing a prosthetic is good and bad, it constitutes a benefit and risk at once. It takes time and dedication to figure stuff out.

So in a way, exchange with others, exchange with specialists, exchange with friends, exchange with engineers about the prosthetic arm - those are the way to go in my view.


In a really cheesy and Hollywood wrap-up, this movie is extremely superficial (as riding a wave, technically, is a superficial thing to do; as seeing a disabled person's body surface is a superficial thing to experience) and deep (as there are glimpses into what's behind or inside) at once.

I like the movie as to me, it sums up a lot in very clear and easy terms: "There you are. You start life. You enjoy things. Oh, Shit! Tragedy strikes! Oh well, permanent damage. Oh well. Look at it as a gift, not as a burden. Work hard, very hard. Send love to others. Enjoy. The end. " It never focuses on other stuff and that's it's subversive beauty.

Lacking the seedy, teary, suffering and drawn out and so much more adequate emotional adult disability drama that "Home of the Brave" (2006) is, and that really appealed to me on a direct personal level, I find this cut throat approach to disability that ""Soul Surfer" (2011) presents - pray, surf, work, love - has a lot going for it.

The movie is not so much about how to re-evaluate disability to find new cooperations, how to network to get to new ideas - it is mainly about a girl who always surfed, got bitten by a shark and who still surfs. Which is not so different from the rest of the world. People lose a leg with a motor cycle accident and go back to riding their motor bikes. I probably suffered radiation induced damage on my hand - I am still working with that type of technology. We all go back to what we are, and what may have damaged us. In that sense I don't see the huge and big evolution. It's the straight forwardness that makes Bethany's story cool. The lack of delay, the bite and the attack, that surprises me.

There also seems to be a huge lack of reflection - but that is superficial. Really, there is no more reflection needed to get on with life. Reflection is great but it just may be overrated. It just may suffice to focus, love, pray, work hard and surf. Or to put it with the words of an even better surf movie (in terms of being motivational): "When you go, go - don't hesitate!" (surfer guy, movie character in Blue Crush 2).

In terms of surfing generally, Bethany Hamilton surely is a great disabled sports motivator and a world class surfer. But there are people out there that go way beyond that and whom we should not forget in the context of motivational surfing. Here is a short clip about Laird Hamilton [personal website] (unrelated to Bethany Hamilton):

All in all, I have to say that it is worthwhile finding your true goals, it is and probably should be hard work to pursue them, but as amputee with a visible disability, you normally have more than enough time to actually do that. To gain that wisdom, I believe not much additional words would be needed - but that movie certainly delivers it once more. Surfing - with or without disability - is certainly a great paradigm to apply summarized life wisdoms of the kind found here. So I suggest you go for it and give it a try : )

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: - Bethany Hamilton's "Soul Surfer" (2011) biographical movie [review]; published 24/09/2011, 01:54; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1638590796, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{ - Bethany Hamilton's "Soul Surfer" (2011) biographical movie [review]}}, month = {September}, year = {2011}, url = {} }