Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Those aware of Bethany Hamilton’s story of tragedy and resiliency will be drawn to finally experience a feature-length documentary about the surfer’s life.
Fans of Soul Surfer, the 2011 film about Hamilton’s tragic encounter with a shark while surfing, will likewise be interested.
Hamilton’s documentary is a family-friendly story that aims for inspiration and overcoming the unthinkable.
Inspirational, yes. Completely forthright and forthcoming, not so much.
Lacks an edge and feels almost too clean and pure. Borders on hagiography.
Some of the themes and points made are reiterated with visuals and cutaways which are very on-the-nose and the film tries almost too hard at times to make its points.
There is no denying Bethany Hamilton’s resilience is an inspiration. At the age of 13, on a morning surf in Kauai, Hawaii, she was attacked by a tiger shark while paddling in the ocean. Severing her left arm below her shoulder, her story made international headlines and within one month of the attack, she returned to the water.
In 2004, Hamilton won an ESPY Award for Comeback Athlete, at the age of 14, and has gone on to become one of the most decorated surfers of all time. Now, at the age of 29, Hamilton stands front-and-center in Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, which gives the big screen documentary treatment to her story for the very first time.
The faith-based, big studio adaptation of her story, Soul Surfer, adapted from her 2004 autobiography, was a heavy-handed, cloying tale of Hamilton’s horrific ordeal. Of course it meant well, but Hamilton’s story almost took a back seat to the delivery of scripture-based dialogue and continual religious references. By being so strident in showing us Hamilton’s faith and Christianity again and again, Soul Surfer felt like it had no interest in sharing its story with anyone outside of a limited, specifically curated audience.
While faith is an important part of Hamilton’s life, Unstoppable is a far more balanced affair. Directed by Aaron Lieber, a surfer and documentarian, uses the past to inform the present. We see Hamilton in the days after the attack via home video footage, and seeing her with her husband and children in present-day. Her family recounts the awful events of the shark attack, friends talk about her demeanor and stay-positive attitude. Hamilton talks about her life and desire to return to surfing. We see her celebrity grow and life change forever.
And that’s pretty much the movie. In somewhat of a non-linear style, we see a woman’s maturation from tragedy to triumph. Her story is moving and a wonderful example of overcoming unthinkable obstacles and modeling resiliency. There is very little, if anything, to object to here.
In that regard, the film works well. However, for someone who surfs giant waves known as “Jaws” and was back on a surfboard a month after losing her arm, Unstoppable lacks any edge. Incredibly safe, elements of the film feel almost inert and repetitive. In some ways, the ubiquity of her story works against the basics of storytelling. If you are at all familiar with Hamilton’s story, Unstoppable offers nothing new, except her story told in long-form for nearly 100 minutes.
Her disposition is always positive, and even when her parents become emotional talking about the attack, or friends discuss how things changed for her at times - we never see it. We see determination and resolve, sure, but Lieber’s best intentions work both for and against his mission for the film. It is hard to find inspiration when the inspiration subject is kind of a shoulder shrug-away from inadvertently dismissing the very premise this film is built around.
Lieber’s breathtaking cinematography helps and nothing here offends. Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable checks all the boxes for a great family film, so to be critical of that seems unfair. However, when you wonder how forthright a film is being with its audience while playing the inspirational card, that puts credibility in question.
Hamilton and her family are genuine here, no doubt. I wish the movie explored the range of emotions Hamilton personally must have gone through - anger and frustration, sadness and acceptance.
Overcoming those emotions, the anguish, depression, and complex emotions regarding her recovery and life post-attack, those conversations allow all of us to find something to gain insight and inspiration from.
CAST & CREW
Documentary Featuring: Bethany Hamilton, Adam Dirks, Alana Blanchard, Cheri Hamilton, Timmy Hamilton, Noah Hamilton, Nanea Hamilton, Tyler Wright, Coco Ho.
Director: Aaron Lieber
Written by: Aaron Lieber, Carol Martori
Release Date: July 12, 2019
Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures