Released in 2011, Sean McNamara’s crowd-pleasing Soul Surfer stands as probably one of the most recognized surfing films of all time, rivaled only by the likes of Big Wednesday (1978) and Surf’s Up (2007). McNamara’s film tells the story of a young surfing phenom, who tragically loses her arm in a shark attack, and preservers to return to the competitive scene. Eight years later, the Bethany Hamilton story returns in the form of the Aaron Lieber’s documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable. Exactly why another feature film about Hamilton is a necessity remains a mystery the film is not entirely able to solve, however, this new doc is enjoyable enough to fulfill the basic expectations of most audiences.
Plainly stated, the conundrum of Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is as follows. On one hand, the subject matter is clearly inspiration and the very definition of feel-good. On the other hand, you cannot help but wonder if the film has anything deeper to say than a simple message about the indominable human spirit. That Hamilton got back on the board is an incredible feat of human perseverance, and should in no way be discounted. That she’s continued to do so is just as incredible, but it also makes for difficult to conclude subject matter.
This is largely why most of documentaries for the acclaimed ESPN series 30 for 30 focus on singular events or individuals whose sporting careers have largely finished. Focusing on a particular competition, scandal, or individual’s now-finished career, provides an easy to layout beginning, middle, and end. With Hamilton’s story as presented here, it’s clear that her story is still being written. In a sense, the film lacks the concluding stage to a definitive beginning, middle, and end.
Furthermore, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable struggles to convey an understanding of the basic mechanics of a pro-surfer’s career. Part of Hamilton’s journey involves her attempting to improve upon the core skills of the sport, but one of those core skills is competition. Therefore, it becomes difficult to understand specifically why Hamilton was so determined to work on some skills such as riding extremely dangerous waves in Tahiti, if they lacked application to competitive surf. This is a fascinating world, and one that most spectators have little experience in. Providing them with the information necessary to understand beyond a simple, “it’s challenging,” is vital, and Lieber’s film unfortunately lacks the ability to communicate as such.
In terms of Hamilton’s personal story, the film also struggles to properly flow. The film is constantly jumping between various threads, including Hamilton’s attempts to continue her career, her pregnancies, motherhood, and her wedding, among others. The danger of telling a relatively open-ended story about such a multi-talented individual is evident here, and contributes to the film’s difficulty to properly feel bigger than its simple message.
At the same time, it is unfair not to give the film its due for building a genuinely charming film. It is nigh impossible to watch Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable and not at least feel good afterwards. Again, this is the conundrum with this film. Its message is simple, but its message is deceptively so. The film feels as if it is hitting you harder than it should be, as a result of the sheer amazement the viewer gets from simply watching Hamilton carve up and down massive waves.
Additionally, the film’s cinematography is a noticeable strength. This should probably be a given considering the many stunning locals, and the ocean’s basic propensity for beautiful imagery, but Lieber (who is also the film’s cinematographer) impressively succeeds regardless. You’ll wish that more of the film consisted of pleasant surf imagery. There is probably no more sure-fire good time documentary this year than Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable. Ultimately though, it is difficult to recommend the film for reasons beyond its inherent feel-good nature.
- Release Date: 7/26/2019