• Thomas Bonifield

Review: "Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable" is Just That

This documentary about the professional Christian surfer is sure to uplift and inspire.

Bethany Hamilton rides a wave in a scene from "Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable." Image: the film's Instagram page.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable debuts nationwide this weekend and it is something else. Shot in eight countries over four years, it is a towering effort from director and cinematographer Aaron Lieber. Between her incredible life story and the fantastic visuals, audiences are sure to be moved.


Bethany Hamilton lost an arm in a shark attack while surfing in her native Hawaii at age 13 and became well known from media appearances and Soul Surfer, the 2011 feature film about her. Throughout the ordeal, she held firm to her Christian faith and her desire to become a world-class professional surfer. Now a 29-year old wife and mother, she has attained the latter and strengthened the former, which comes through in this documentary.


Bethany Hamilton with husband Adam Dirks & their two sons at the documentary's Hollywood premiere. Image from the film's Instagram page.

The narrative delves into the shark attack in great detail and uses copious amounts of archival footage from the Hamilton family and news reports to give a strong feel for her childhood. That is competently done and necessary to lay the foundation for her adult years, which we believe Lieber handles particularly adroitly. Hamilton is an undeniably sympathetic soul that everyone in the audience will be rooting for. She refuses to allow the shark attack to define her or to strip her of her love of the ocean and surfing. Her commitment to the sport, and gritty determination to achieve excellence are bound to stir feelings of inspiration.


Though she reaches professional highs, Lieber also bears witness to the tear-streaked and bloodied lows when she is bested by the waves during some of her failings. Those elements steady the picture, tempering what could otherwise have easily degenerated into hagiography.


There are also moments of insight from loved ones and acquaintances that help shine a light on the person inside the athlete: recollections from her parents and life-long friends, as well as competitors and surfing analysts. Among the most interesting facets of her adult life is her own family, in the persons of husband Adam Dirks and then-newborn son Tobias. Hamilton talks about having always wanted to be a mother, but being surprised and unprepared for the timing of his birth, which came in the middle of her professional rise.


As to negatives in the film, there were not many in our view. An interesting moment we would have like to have seen fleshed out more involved her husband and his clearly conflicted feelings at being along for the ride as Mr. Bethany Hamilton, as it were. There was also a lenthy montage of her training for a competition that was put to music more befitting a feature film and thus slightly jarring in this documentary landscape.


But these are quibbles and most assuredly do not detract from the overall effort here. Christian Film Blog rates Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable an 8.5 out of 10 and recommends you got see it this weekend. Take someone along who needs to be uplifted, too, because he certainly will be. In a word, if you don't leave the theater inspired, you don't have a pulse.

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