“Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” begins sixteen years after the event that shaped the young surfer’s life. This story of determination, grit and hangin’ ten comes with a splash of irony as the woman whose arm was bitten off by a shark prepares to conquer a nasty stretch of big wave surfing breaks off the coast of Maui nicknamed “Jaws.”
The Aaron Lieber directed doc begins in current day as Hamilton’s team prepares for the biggest surf of her career before flashing back to detail her newsworthy career. A surf prodigy, she began competitive boarding at age eight and, as part of the Hanalei Surf Co. team, the youngster far outpaced more experienced surfers. It looked like everything was going to be snatched away, however, in 2003 when she was the victim of a shark attack surf at Tunnels Beach in Ha’ena with her best friend Alana Blanchard (who appears in the film). Her arm, severed from the shoulder, was lost and with it, it seemed, so was her budding career. But, just four weeks later, she was back on a board, competing professionally and winning the Best Comeback Athlete ESPY Award.
It’s forceful stuff, nicely told with the use of home movies and new interviews, but it’s similar territory to anyone who saw the 2011 biopic based on her bestselling book “Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board.”
More compelling is the depiction of her life post-accident as she fights to maintain her place in the surfing world while balancing marriage and motherhood.
“Unstoppable,” shot over the course of four years, eventually leads back to the sea and the big waves that have entranced Hamilton since her youth. Lieber, a specialist in surf cinematography, provides spectacular footage of Hamilton atop a board, lending the film, which relies on camcorder footage in its early moments, some much needed visual flair.
At the core of “Unstoppable” is Hamilton, a driven multi-tasker who at twenty-six-years-of-age has beaten all odds to pursue her dream. “I think of all the struggles and pains I faced and have gone through,” she says, “and really it is God that got me through that. At the same time God gave me this passion to surf and it wasn’t like the passion had been taken too.”
More inspiring than enlightening, the doc never gets into deep waters. Like the surfers who skim the surface, searching for a big moment as they float on the water, “Unstoppable” is content to glide along. She is presented as an inspiration, the kind of person about whom people say, “Bethany reminding people of what she is capable of is sending people a message whether she wins or not.” It isn’t particularly insightful but it is inspiring in a pop psychology kind of way, painting a portrait of a person who scrawls the “Always Hope” in cement at a walk of fame presentation.