A key part of Bethany Hamilton's story was told onscreen once before, in the 2011 faith-based film Soul Surfer. Her more complete story is told in the documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable. The shark attack that took her left arm is covered, but the real focus is on the perseverance that has marked her career from the very beginning. It's an inspiring portrait of an athlete who has succeeded because failure, to her, is unacceptable.
Making extensive use of personal home videos, Unstoppable first charts Hamilton's childhood, where she fell in love with surfing, quickly became a young champion, and had her career threatened after that encounter with a shark. No one thought she'd surf competitively again after that. A simple modification to her surfboard – the addition of a handle to help her get past the impact zone – made it possible. She not only surfed, she continued to win.
That same irrepressible spirit is shown in more recent times. Unstoppable tracks what happens when Hamilton becomes unexpectedly (but happily) pregnant. Perhaps obviously, she surfs in that condition for a while. She resumes mere weeks after giving birth, too. Focusing on the waves when her baby is waiting back on the shore provides some new challenges to conquer. As a sort of framing device, we see Hamilton working toward surfing “Jaws,” a notoriously massive 80-foot wave in Hawaii, because she always needs a new goal.
Hamilton appears on-camera to offer thoughts on her life in and out of the water. Family members, friends, and colleagues are also present. Unstoppable uses their comments to focus on what is perhaps the key element of Hamilton's personality, namely her drive. The desire to surf is so embedded in her personality that there's literally nothing that will prevent her from doing it. If there's a message to the movie, it's that there will be moments in life that tell you to stop following your passion, and you should absolutely ignore them.
So much ground is covered here that you occasionally wish the documentary would go a little deeper on certain subjects, or probe Hamilton more about them. Regardless, what she's accomplished is nothing less than astonishing. Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable celebrates her achievements, while simultaneously reminding viewers that she isn't some specially-powered superwoman; she's someone who worked hard and never gave up, thereby making her a role model for anyone with a dream.
This is an entertaining look at one of the most prominent sports figures of our time, and it's packed with breathtaking surfing footage.
out of four
Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is rated PG for some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.