‘Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable’ rides the wild surf undefeated

Broadway has the musical Hamilton and surfing has Bethany Hamilton. Aaron Lieber’s exquisitely shot Unstoppable is the second feature-length film about the 13-year-old Kauai girl whose arm was bitten off by a tiger shark in 2003 while she was wave riding. Bethany was portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb in 2011’s Soul Surfer, co-starring Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid as her parents and Branscombe Richmond as coach Ben Aipa. (According to Jenni Gold, director of the new documentary about the screen image of disabled people Cinemability, The Art of Inclusion, to be released on VOD Oct. 5, her interview with Hamilton “is on the DVD’s bonus features.”)

Lieber’s documentary not only covers the period in Hamilton’s life that Soul Surfer focused on, but her life beyond that. In the gorgeous to behold biopic Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable we watch the teenager grow up, pursue her professional surfing career, become a media darling, blossom as a young woman, marry and have her first child. The helmer combines home movies, news clips and the like with lots of original and more current footage of the driven champion shot by Lieber. His camera follows Bethany to surf hot spots with eyebrow-raising names like “Jaws,” from Kauai to Maui to Oahu, to Bali, Australia, Fiji, Tahiti and beyond. Lieber’s lens takes us beneath the waves and soars over verdant mountaintops with glorious aerial cinematography, earning it a special place in the annals of South Seas Cinema cinematography.

In his feature-length directorial debut Lieber has simply created one of the greatest, most stunning surf films ever made. But Unstoppable is much more than The Endless Summer for 2018: It is a testament to the undefeated will power of human beings rising above their challenges and in particular, their own so-called “disabilities.” Riding these killer waves is daunting enough for those with all of their limbs but Bethany never gives up. She continues to dream of surfing and competing only days after her accident, refusing to allow her injury and fear to keep her out of the water.

Indeed, Mike Coots, another surfer whose leg was devoured by a shark but continues to wave ride using prosthetics, asserts onscreen that he prefers the term “adaptive” to “disabled.” Bethany actually refuses to accept a prestigious athletic ESPY Award when she finds out it is being bestowed in the “disabled” category. The unbeatable competitor insists on being treated as a full equal and continues to live life on her own terms and to compete.

Although Unstoppable doesn’t dwell on Bethany’s faith in Jesus, it helps enable her to keep on keeping on. Hamilton, who doesn’t appear to have much formal education (I imagine she’d consider the waves to be her Harvard and Yale), is not shown quoting or pontificating on feminist philosophy; more importantly, she embodies and lives it. Often seen onscreen in revealing, skimpy bikinis as she accomplishes the impossible atop her surfboard, Bethany embodies Grrrl Power as a fully empowered female even sharks couldn’t stop. Her friendships with other female surfers are also admirable.

Bethany—a blonde “haole” (Caucasian) living in the largely Democratic state of Hawaii— doesn’t make any political comments in this film. After the LA Film Festival’s premiere of his doc, Lieber told me Hamilton prefers to lead “by example,” to let her actions speak for her.

Although I greatly enjoyed this beautiful documentary, I had some reservations, as I do about most athletes. As in another LAFF 2018 documentary, Stuntman, I couldn’t help but wonder what makes people take such colossal risks, unnecessarily placing themselves in harm’s way? Is the thrill of zooming across a canyon in a rocket, risking rip curls or riding a gigantic pounder’s barrel worth the potential loss of life or limb? In truth, Bethany, like Eddie Braun in Stuntman, has an economic incentive to push herself beyond her limits. Now 28, like most professional athletes, Hamilton knows her days as a competitor are numbered, which may be why she continues to gamble with her safety, putting herself in great jeopardy. Perhaps her belief in an afterlife makes her turn a blind eye to the perils of the deep, from killer combers to sharks.

At 99 minutes, Lieber’s eye-popping documentary may be a bit too long. The Polynesian scenery is sublime to look at, but how many death defying waves and rides can one watch over and over again before it becomes redundant? Having said all this, these quibbles shouldn’t stop moviegoers from seeing this extraordinarily visual, remarkable nonfiction film about a young woman whose real-life story is truly stranger than fiction. If you love sports pictures, female empowerment, transcendant scenery, and tales of physical derring-do and the irrepressible human spirit, don’t miss Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.

For more info see: www.LAFilmfest.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR