Soul Surfer is such a fantastic movie regarding disability representation. I love how whole-heartedly themes of adaptation are embraced. Bethany, and so many of the people in her life don’t hesitate to require her to do things, but they also are right there to help her think outside the box to find ways to accomplish things - whether tasks of daily living, surfing or something more. I like that the highs and lows were depicted, that she dealt with well-meaning offers of help and sympathy. So many things that people with disabilities live with every single day. Just fantastic.
Authentic Portrayal: No. Bethany is portrayed by able-bodied actress, Anna Sophia Robb. However, Bethany did do her own surfing, for the scenes that required it.
Authentic Representation in the Writing: Yes. Based on Bethany's autobiography. Bethany's family and Bethany, herself, worked very closely on the movie, ensuring as authentic a portrayal as possible.
Adapting: Fantastic. From the beginning, her doctor tells her the number of things she'll have to learn to do differently is "extensive" but the number of things she won't be able to do at all is "small." Once she's home, the family makes sandwiches. Bethany tries to cut a tomato, open a package (she does, with her teeth,) and at her mom's suggestion, gets the bread, but struggles with the twist-tie. When the family prays, and her brother realizes he cannot take her hand, Bethany places his on her shoulder instead. We see her struggle to get dressed, and put a ponytail in (her brother helps her.) A month later, she's mastered slicing fruit, by moving the cutting board to the floor and stabilizing it with her feet, while using the knife to cut is a great moment and shows how she's figuring out new ways of doing things. The whole family helps her train when she wants to compete again, and suggests new ways to counterbalance on the board. And even later, her dad adapts the board for her even when she isn't competing. And I love every single training montage because there's so much to them. I love that they show creativity and growth and strength throughout.
Helpless: Not at all. From the beginning, very early in her recovery and still in the hospital, she asks her dad, "When can I surf again?" He doesn't tell her she won't be able to because of her injury. He tells her she will "soon."
Portrayal: Very positive. She is shown to do her own grocery shopping, even though it's more difficult now. She deals with children's stares and questions, and parents apologies (a very real part of having a disability.) Later, we have the prosthesis, which is only for looks, and which Bethany doesn't like. She goes to her room and snaps off her Barbie's arm. Then, her mom finds a picture of Venus de Milo as a positive example of beauty without arms. (I also thought it was interesting, since I ended up doing some quick research about the statue, that it was originally created with arms, but the arms were lost in the discovery.)
Perceptions: When Bethany gets her bandages removed and sees her scar for the first time, she obviously looks to her mother to see her reaction - to see how she, herself, should react. Wonderfully, Mom smiles and nods encouragement when Bethany looks in the mirror, and Mom waits until she is away from Bethany to cry (because any negative reaction could very much damage her.)
Faith and Disability: Sarah should be an example to all people of faith as to how to react to a disabled person in their midst. There is no talk of "fixing" or "healing" Bethany. There is just support and empathy as Bethany figures out how to walk this new road. She's not afraid to look at Bethany's scar, and she's not afraid to hug her. She's not afraid, either, to admit that she doesn't have all the answers Bethany needs. And in the mission field, she's just expected to participate. No one asks whether she CAN help, and she doesn't receive any special treatment.
Special (Unwanted) Accommodations: Whether it's her mom being a bit over protective, or a competition judge offering a five minute head start, or Bethany's best friend encouraging a fellow competitor to "let Bethany have" the wave, these are all swiftly refuted. Because like a lot of people with disabilities we don't want any kind of special treatment, we just want to do what everyone else is doing. I love that that's shown over and over here.
Representation Matters: This is my tag for all things disability related in the media, and I love that even within the movie, we are shown that seeing Bethany compete - even when she loses - it means so much to other children who are amputees. It's not exactly what Bethany's mom tells her (though they may have been partially moved because she tried.) I think it was that these kids saw someone like them on TV. And that is so important, because there isn't a lot of disability representation in the media.
Definitely recommend this one to anyone, especially kids 12 and up, disabled and able bodied (but with parental guidance, as it's got a few intense scenes.)