Who's In It: AnnaSophia Robb, Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Craig T. Nelson, Lorraine Nicholson
The Basics: Bethany Hamilton (Robb) is the real-life 13-year-old surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack and then, weeks later, got back into the ocean to keep training for competition. And you don't have to do much internet digging on Hamilton to know what caused her to have that kind of resolve--it was Jesus. The kid just happens to come from a family of really chill, Acai smoothie-drinking surfers who also sit around at breakfast quoting wisdom from the book of Jeremiah, and to strip her story of that integral element would be like making a movie about Liberace and pretending he wasn't gay.
What's The Deal: It would be a lie to say that this movie rises above sports film clichés. It doesn’t. It would also be untrue to say that it’s especially well-written or directed. It’s not. At its best it’s a high-quality, extremely blond TV movie, one with no surprises or challenges, where everything you expect it to be is laid out well in advance of the closing credits. As inspiration it’s pretty uninspiring. But its faults are almost redeemed by the one thing it does very well, which is to depict modern evangelical Christians like fully formed human beings. No one’s obnoxious, no one’s hateful, no one’s being raptured alongside Kirk Cameron or preaching or wearing a vacant Stepford smile; they’re just people who happen to talk about God a lot. And in a Hollywood landscape where this type of character is usually ignored or treated as the object of satire or, worse, ghettoized in some of the most laughable faith-based projects you've never seen (try watching C Me Dance sometime if you don't believe me), that’s almost a miracle.
I'm Sorry, Did I Say It Wasn't Laughable? I Was Kidding: Fans of cheese with extra cheese still have a reason to check this out. For starters there's the presence of Carrie Underwood, a woman who has just trounced Justin Guarini in the contest of “Who Is the Worst Actor Ever to Come from American Idol?” When this thing hits cable, make sure to fast forward to the part where they go on a mission trip to Thailand to help tsunami victims. Witnessing Underwood clumsily wrap bandages around a Thai extra’s head is the stuff that endlessly looped YouTube videos are made of.
And Then There's Jaws: The filmmakers were smart. They didn't linger long on their extremely fake shark. It pops out of the water, bites the arm off, then makes a quick getaway. You don't have much time to goof on its falsehoods. But then they stopped being smart and went for the cheap jolt instead of for a payoff to a suspenseful build-up, so its execution is almost exactly like the hilarious gotcha moment when Sam Jackson gets eaten in Deep Blue Sea.
See Also: Bridge to Terabithia, which also stars young AnnaSophia Robb as a middle-school-aged atheist whose friendship with two churchgoing kids affects all of them in surprising ways.