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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable documentary review: she was born to surf

Bethany Hamilton Unstoppable yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

There are nowhere near enough movies about thrill-seeking women, so this documentary profiling the pro surfer is very welcome. But there’s no need for such a heavy hand on the “inspirational.”
I’m “biast” (pro): I am desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): not a sports fan
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

There aren’t anywhere near enough movies about sporty thrill-seeking girls and women, which makes this new documentary about professional surfer Bethany Hamilton very welcome. Aggressive, competitive, and driven, Hamilton has been a powerful role model for little girls and women — and for little boys and grown men, too — not least because she bounced back from a horrific injury that should have ended her career before it even started. In October 2003, when she was 13 and a serious amateur, she lost her left arm to a tiger shark in the waters off her home of Hawaii.

“Nobody thought it was possible,” Hamilton says here, to be “a one-armed surfer,” but she was winning trophies again soon after… until her detour into a side gig as global teen media sensation distracted her and derailed her game for a while. (Her story was previously told in the 2011 “faith-based” film Soul Surfer, starring AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton; the athlete is a devout Christian. That’s not a focus of this film, which couldn’t be fairly tagged as “faith-based.”)

Bethany Hamilton Unstoppable

Bethany’s baby be born to surf…

Now, this Kickstarter-funded doc frames Hamilton’s journey against the backdrop of her recent preparation to surf the legendary “monster” wave known as — ironically, given her past — “Jaws” in the waters off Hawaii. Anyone who thinks that surfing at her level is just about hopping on a board and paddling off may be surprised to discover that an attempt like this is a major production requiring a crew of backup support. They’re all terrified of “Jaws” on her behalf; she’s just eager to get on with ensuring it’s as big a challenge to her skills as possible.

At least as rousing as Hamilton’s prior triumph over bodily adversity is the new physical trial she takes on: pregnancy and motherhood. She is surfing while heavily pregnant and competing again mere months postpartum, and later while still nursing. No antiquated notions of women as the “weaker sex” are tolerated here. The film might have, however, given a little more attention to Hamilton’s explicit refusal to be tagged as “disabled”; the topic is only briefly raised and seems to warrant deeper discussion.

The bigger fault of the film, though, is director Aaron Lieber’s glowing, laudatory tone; he is nowhere near as adventurous or risk-taking as his subject. There’s a sleek slickness to Unstoppable that lends a sense more of the promotional than of honest portraiture… unless Hamilton really is the uncomplicated paragon she comes across as here, which seems unlikely. But she is so clearly an inspiration that there’s no need for such a heavy hand on the “inspirational.”


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.



yellow light 3 stars

watch at home

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable (2019) | directed by Aaron Lieber
US/Can release: Jul 12 2019
UK/Ire release: Oct 15 2019 (direct to VOD)

MPAA: rated PG for some thematic elements
BBFC: not rated

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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