By now, you're likely familiar with the story of Bethany Hamilton, the charismatic surfer who has been the subject of both a short doc, 2007's Heart of a Soul Surfer, and the acclaimed feature film Soul Surfer that was based upon Hamilton's own book.
An accomplished surfer by the age of nine, at age 13 Hamilton was on a training surf on October 31, 2003 alongside best friend Alana Blanchard when she was attacked by an approximately 14-foot tiger shark severing her left arm just below the shoulder. By the time she arrived at the very same hospital where her father was scheduled for surgery that morning, she'd lost 60% of her blood and had entered hypovolemic shock.
Despite still being traumatized by the attack, a mere one month later Hamilton was back on her surfboard. Initially using a custom-made board that was longer, thicker, and had a handle for her right arm that assisted in the necessary paddling, Hamilton over time would teach herself how to compensate for the lack of her left arm by increasing her kick. On January 10, 2004, Hamilton entered a major competition and has continued to rock the surfing world with her resilience, perseverance, and ability to continue surfing at a professional level despite the inherent challenges of surfing as an amputee.
Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is in many ways the film that takes Hamilton away from such labels as "shark girl" and "athlete with a disability" and serves to undefine her in a way that emphasizes her ongoing presence as a professional athlete and woman of strength whose accomplishments, both personal and professional, continue to inspire others to live their lives unstoppable.
Directed by Aaron Lieber, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is a relentlessly feel good documentary that doesn't shy away from Hamilton's challenges yet overwhelmingly emphasizes her personal, physical, and spiritual strength and the myriad of ways in which she has overcome her obstacles and lived life according to her dreams and according to those things she believes God has called her into doing. A popular film on the film fest circuit, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable picked up a handful of awards along its festival journey including Best of Fest Selection at Palm Springs International Film Festival, Best Made in Hawaii Feature at the Hawaii International Film Festival, Audience Award for Best Doc Feature at San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, and another Audience Award prize at Newport Beach Film Festival.
Picked up by Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures for a limited nationwide release starting July 12, 2019, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable will open in four Indiana theaters including Showplace 17 in Indy, Village Park in Carmel, Perry Crossing 18 in Plainfield, and Fort Wayne's AMC Fort Wayne 20.
Utilizing an extensive collection of home videos, simultaneously grainy and endearing, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable gives us a much more complete journey of Hamilton's life than did 2011's Soul Surfer, a film in which Annasophia Robb played Hamilton but Hamilton herself did the film's surfing sequences. Unstoppable overwhelmingly emphasizes Hamilton as a surfer, occasionally over-stylized surfing sequences often replacing a more substantive exploration of Hamilton's resilience and determination. That said, Lieber doesn't shy away from Hamilton's traumas and dramas with early footage of the attack scene being both matter-of-fact and emotionally raw as we eyeball Hamilton's surfboard that is now on display at the California Surf Museuem. Hamilton has confessed to having only brief doubts about her ability to return to surfing, a "can do" attitude that permeates every frame of Unstoppable and that could come off as saccharine if we didn't also follow along as Hamilton does the hard work to make it all happen with plenty of trials and tribulations along the way.
While Soul Surfer ended not very long after Hamilton's actual accident, Unstoppable begins with her childhood alongside Alana and continues into a current day life that includes ongong competitive surfing along with her 2013 marriage to youth minister Adam Dirks and the births of their two children, Tobias and Wesley. While there were concerns about Hamilton's body being able to endure the rigors of pregnancy, Unstoppable gives us a glimpse inside the tremendous physical regimen that Hamilton committed to in order to keep herself and her children healthy.
Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is essentially 99 minutes of pure, relentless inspiration that will resonate with both people of faith and those who simply enjoy inspirational, feel good stories grounded in hard work and relentless dedication. Through her own foundation called Friends of Bethany, Hamilton has increasingly committed herself to the wellness and highest potential of other amputees and people with a variety of challenges and it's entirely likely you've seen her in any number of television or film appearances including The Amazing Race (alongside her husband), Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, 19 Kids and Counting, The Biggest Loser, and even an appearance as herself in the film Dolphin Tale 2.
Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is often a visually stunning film, Lieber's own lensing weaving together beautifully with the film's home videos and archival footage to create a film that is immersive and warm. The original music by Kris Bowers occasionally overplays the emotion, yet often accompanies the film's action meets emotion quite nicely. Occasional music selections fit the film quite nicely, especially a closing credits turn by Andra Day's beautiful Rise Up, a particularly appropriate selection given the Day's video for the song that emphasizes overcoming disability and physical challenges.
Infectious and warm, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is the kind of film you want to see in theaters to get the fully effect of its surf sequences yet you'll also want to add it to your home video collection once available because when you're feeling down or overwhelmed Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable will get you back on track to living unstoppably.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic