Review: Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable

by Andrew Parker

The sporting biography Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is the kind of documentary that earns a lot of good will simply by being a film that has genuine people speaking honestly about their lives and struggles. While it effectively chronicles the ups and downs of one of surfing’s most inspirational and successful figures, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable doesn’t go above or beyond in the filmmaking department. But it doesn’t exactly have to. Hamilton’s story (which will probably appeal mostly to wave chasers and Christian faith-based moviegoers equally) is a good one, and it’s shared with a minimum of preaching, a wealth of sometimes brutally honest detail, and a degree of humility. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly a nice and adequately moving one.

Turned on to surfing at a young age by her parents, Hawaiian Bethany Hamilton has spent her entire life honing her craft. As a teenager, Hamilton was frequently heralded as the next big phenom in surfing. That all changed in 2003, when at the age of thirteen, Hamilton was attacked by a 14-foot long tiger shark off the coast of Makua Beach. The incident claimed her left arm, which was taken off at the shoulder, but Hamilton remained undeterred. Four weeks after the attack, Hamilton was back on a board, and not long after she was competing again at a professional level.

One could stop Hamilton’s story there, and indeed that’s around the point that the 2011 fictional biopic Soul Surfer cuts things off for maximum maudlin and emotional effect. Director Aaron Lieber, a surf movie veteran, goes beyond that obvious stopping point to show how Hamilton’s life has evolved, and in many ways, grown more complicated and fraught thanks to her newfound fame. Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable documents the strain placed upon her shoulders after becoming an outspoken, tirelessly travelling inspirational advocate and media darling. Lieber, who clearly spent a long time with his subject and her family, goes beyond the standard Hollywood ending of Hamilton’s story and paints a picture of someone who grew burnt out and weary from their fame, to a point where that exhaustion was more of a detriment to her performance in the water than losing an arm. In interviews, Hamilton, her parents and siblings, close friends, fellow competitors, and her husband, Adam Dirks, don’t hold back their feelings about such issues. While they’re grateful for the things that notereity has afforded them, the Hamiltons are more than willing to admit that mistakes have been made and things could’ve been handled differently.

Being that forthright is a good fit for Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, which is still viewed best as a devotional bit of faith based filmmaking primarily and a sports movie second. While there’s plenty of praise given to Jesus Christ, that’s not what Lieber and Hamilton want to talk about the most. Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable effortlessly transitions after its first thirty minutes into an unvarnished look at someone who successfully beat away the doubts of others, rose back to the top of their game, and was suddenly left wondering what the next steps were. 

Hamilton speaks plainly about the times when surfing wasn’t going well enough to pay the bills, and how terrified she was when she found out she was going to be a mother. Lieber gives his subject plenty of space to reflect upon everything that has gone right and wrong in equal measure, and while Hamilton isn’t exactly a controversial figure outside of her outspoken faith, the film built around her carries with it a truly inspirational message. Although Hamilton is a top level athlete, Lieber and his subject have found a way to find what makes her such a relatable human being. Her struggles easy to empathize with and identify. Hamilton isn’t afraid to talk about whenever she isn’t doing well, and she talks viewers through the steps she takes to retrain and refocus her energies, and frequently it has nothing to do with her faith, but rather her tenacity and personal spirit. Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable might stop every now and again to reflect upon the love of a higher power, but it speaks more effectively to the power of putting one’s fears and doubts out in the open and not letting them fester through silence. Whether or not the Lord is a part of that is immaterial, and it’s nice to see a film that values openness above all things.

In that respect, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable works better than one might expect, but that’s also the strongest thing about the film. As a surfing movie, Lieber’s work is aimed squarely at those who already have a passing knowledge of the sport. If you don’t already know how difficult it is to paddle out to a wave and trying to stand up on a board while riding in towards shore, you won’t understand just how amazing it is that Hamilton can do so with only one arm. Similarly, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is pretty perfunctory looking when placed alongside other surf movie classics of years past. On one hand, it looks great, but it’s hard to make locations like Hawaii and Fiji look anything less than breathtaking.

The pacing of Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is also rather strange. While it doesn’t immediately run out of material, Lieber races over Hamilton’s early years and sums it all up in less than thirty minutes, making one wonder what the rest of the film could possibly be about. Thankfully, Lieber finds his filmmaking wave and rides it as long as he can, but eventually Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable loses steam and confidence as a film in the final thirty minutes, when the surfer tries mounting a comeback and decides to refocus her area of expertise. It’s interesting, but a lot of this feels like padding (including an overlong, but well edited and suitably rousing training montage) when compared to the more personal nature of everything that came before it. 

But for a solid hour Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is the well told story of a life lived well despite obvious adversity. It’s all told with an honourable amount of self-reflection and contemplation. It’s a film that wants to be inspirational and lightly ecclesiastical, but it doesn’t want to rub anyone’s faces in it. Like Hamilton’s personality, it’s a fairly chill movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t willing to engage in sometimes hard conversations. One gets the sense that Hamilton is both grateful for the ability to share her talents and get her messages out into the world, but that she’s also skeptical of her own fame. That’s a remarkably human quality that most films built around sports and/or Christianity fail to achieve and what makes Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable such a low key and welcome surprise.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Halifax, St. John’s, Victoria, and Montreal on Friday, July 26, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable:

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