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Bethany Hamilton (Anna Sophia Robb) is a teenager who lives in Kauai, Hawaii who loves surfing. One night, she and her best friend Alana go surfing with Alana's father and brother. As Bethany dangles her left arm in the water, a tiger shark appears out of nowhere and bites off her arm near the shoulder.
Alana's father puts a tourniquet on Bethany while Alana's brother calls 9-1-1. An ambulance meets them on the way to the hospital.
The family, however, bears no ill will towards Alana's family for taking her out to the place where she was attacked. After a recuperation period, Bethany gets back in the water and learns to surf with one arm, eventually re-entering competition. She tells her rival Malina not to take it easy on her, and rejects a five-minute head start offered by the judges. She doesn't perform well because she can't stay on the board long enough to go out and catch a competitive wave, and loses. Disheartened, she decides to give up competitive surfing.
She sees the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on television, which places her own problems in perspective. She decides to join her youth group on a missionary trip to help the devastated people of Phucket, Thailand. The people are understandably afraid of the water, including a little boy. Bethany decides to go into the water with a surf board, hoping this will coax the boy into the water. It works, and the realization she can use her gift to inspire people motivates her to take up surfing again.
Tom rigs a handle on her surfboard which she can use to prevent falling off while paddling out to the waves. She enters the regional championship, thanks her rival for treating her as a serious competitor, and performs respectably, though she is still chasing third place.
With only minutes left on the clock, the waves die down and all the surfers can only loiter, waiting for them to start back up. Bethany is the only one to sense a big wave forming, and she alone paddles out. When it forms, the others can't get out in time and she catches it just as the horn sounds. She will win if it was in time, but the judges rule that the time has expired. Malina is the winner, but she has finally gotten over her differences with her, inviting her up on the platform to share first place.
Subsequently, Bethany lets the reporters interview her. One asks her what she would do if given the chance to undo the loss of her arm. She says that she would still lose it because she can embrace more people now than she ever could with two arms.
- Adaptational Angst Upgrade: The real Bethany Hamilton claims that she was much more cheerful in the hospital. She played pranks on the nurses and gave stuffed animals to a cancer patient.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: Practically everyone, with the arguable exception of Alana.
- Adult Fear: Having your child attacked by a dangerous animal is a big one.
- An Arm and a Leg: Bethany loses her arm to a shark.
- Artificial Limb: Bethany gets offered one, but she soon turns it down.
- Barely-There Swimwear: The bikini that Alana buys.
Bethany: Are you kidding? That looks like an eyepatch.
- Based on a True Story
- Christianity Is Catholic: Averted. Here Christianity is Evangelical.
- Daddy's Girl: Bethany
- Dueling Movies: First with 127 Hours and then with Dolphin Tale.
- Everything Is Even Worse With Sharks
- Everyone Loves Blondes: The movie encludes pretty much every woman with a speaking part (and maybe then some) except the native Hawaiian Malina Birch, Bethany's fierce rival.
- Fan Service: Bethany and Alana spend most of the movie in bikinis (It is Hawaii, after all). Most notably, Alana's photoshoot.
- In point of fact Bethany rather disliked the photoshoot, saying in her memoirs that it made Alana look more exhibitionistic then she really was.
- Bethany and the other surfers usually wear a jersey over their swimsuits during the actual surfing scenes.
- Gory Discretion Shot: We don't actually see the wound from the shark attack. Lots of blood in the water, though.
- Heel Face Turn: Malina
- Heterosexual Life Partners: Bethany and Alana
- Homeschooled Kids
- Hot Mom: Helen Hunt as Bethany's mom.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: Normal is so overrated.
- Mood Whiplash: Bethany and Alana are casually discussing what swimsuits to wear for their photoshoot. Then the shark attacks.
- Ms. Fanservice: Alana, to a certain degree. Arguably Truth in Television. Just look at her!
- Ominous Hawaian Chanting: Used to great effect on the way to the hospital.
- Parking Problems: Bethany's mom is so upset after hearing about her daughter's arm, she forgets to put her minivan in Park after arriving at the hospital.
- Alana's dad takes up two parking spaces with his truck.
- Plucky Girl: Bethany
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Some people complained that the large bite taken out of the board was cartoonish and unrealistic. They were wrong.
- Real Girls Love Jesus.
- Revenge: Sort of. That very shark ends up being showed off as a trophy by some fishermen. However it is just a fish so it is not clear how much revenge one can get.
- Scenery Porn
- Stunt Double / Talent Double: While an actor plays Bethany in the dialogue, Bethany was her own stunt double conveniently being perfectly qualified. In other words, when you see the surfing scenes you actually are watching Bethany Hamilton. And when you see it, it doesn't look like it should be called "surfing". It should be called dancing on the water.
- Training Montage
- True Companions:Several overlapping groups; the Hamiltons and Blanchards, Bethany and her Church Youth Group, Bethany and her surfing buddies too.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Alana throws up on the beach after the shark attack.
- Walking Swimsuit Scene: Scenes where Bethany and Alana aren't wearing swimsuits of some kind can be counted on one hand.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue
- Worst Aid: A paramedic uses his teeth to tear open a package of medical equipment on the ambulance ride to the hospital