Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, a new documentary about the famed female surfer, is a love story. Not so much about Hamilton’s love for God or her husband (Adam Dirks) or her son (Tobias), though clearly she loves them all. No, the romance this film focuses on is between Bethany and the ocean—and the sport that has given her, and taken from her, so much.
“It’s my passion and my love,” Bethany says of the ocean. “But [it’s] also my place of healing and reflection.”
Many might find Bethany’s use of the word “healing” a little odd, given that a shark infamously bit off her left arm in 2003, when she was just 13 (as dramatized in the 2011 film Soul Surfer). But as we see, Hamilton’s love of this watery world is just too strong to be extinguished by a mere missing limb.
Bethany was born to a pair of surfers, the movie tells us: Charilyn and Thomas Hamilton met through the sport. And when they got married and had kids, Charilyn tells us that “everything was designed around taking care of the family and having time to surf.” Bethany showed unusual talent quite early. By age 8, she says she knew she’d be turning professional.
She could do it, too. The family’s trophy case filled up with her awards. Unstoppable suggests that Hawaii (Bethany’s home state) was experiencing a huge surge in talented surfer girls in the early 2000’s, but she was the best of the bunch. “Bethany was the one to beat,” says friend and future three-time world champion Carissa Moore.
Nothing could keep Bethany out of the water—not even her fears. When asked before the accident whether she was scared of sharks, a young Bethany admitted that she was.
“How do you deal with it?” she was asked.
“Just pray,” Bethany said.
We don’t see the horrific incident that claimed Bethany’s arm—though we do see her surfboard (with a massive, almost cartoonish bite taken out of it) and the little girl in the hospital. But Bethany tells us that in just six days, she was already plotting her return to the ocean—to surf without an arm.
The trials she faced to make that return were, of course, enormous. But Unstoppable suggests she didn’t just deal with physical challenges. The shark attack, coupled with Bethany’s iron-strong will to return to surfing, turned the teen into a star. And as a strong, outspoken Christian, it made her a faith-centric role model, too, with all the additional pressures that responsibility entails. But all the media appearances and accolades also took a toll on her ability to compete. She inadvertently became a celebrity first, a surfer second.
“I was seeing a lot of my good friends qualifying and winning world titles, and me kind of getting left behind,” she said. “I couldn’t help thinking about what I could’ve accomplished if I hadn’t lost my arm.”
But the ocean never lost its pull on Bethany. Unstoppable shows us how through injury and marriage and an unexpected pregnancy, she pushed on with her surfing—showing us, sometimes in painful detail, her failures as well as her successes. When she pushes herself to improve her aerial surfing skills, for instance, we see a moment when she crashes hard. She sits on her board, blood dribbling from her mouth, crying more in frustration than pain.
But then she tries again.
Unstoppable is not an antiseptic documentary on any level. We see Bethany bleed elsewhere, too. She and other surfers wipe out spectacularly at times. And, as you might expect, loads of bikinis and other skimpy swim outfits are on constant display. There’s a bit of language, as well: In old 2003 news footage of Bethany’s arm-claiming accident, an interview subject lets the f-word fly—an unusual inclusion in a film rated PG. We hear one or two misuses of God’s name, too.
But if you can navigate those pressure points, Unstoppable offers an undeniably inspiring story.
We see interviews with Bethany’s obviously loving parents, as well as supportive friends and rivals. We meet Bethany’s husband, Adam, who’s made tons of sacrifices of his own to support Bethany’s surfing and celebrity career. (“I couldn’t be where I am today without the way he’s supported me,” she admits.) We see the sort of positive impact that she’s made on her fans—everyone from starry-eyed little girls to, as Adam says, “tough-looking guys with beards.”
And we hear Bethany talk about her faith often. “Really, it’s God who’s gotten me through all of that,” she tells us, adding, “He gave me this passion to surf.”
That feels like an echo of Eric Liddell’s statement in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast,” the Olympic runner says in the film. “And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
And that, above all, is what we’re left with here: how Bethany Hamilton must feel God’s pleasure when she surfs. We see her competitiveness, her draining training regimen, her tireless desire to get better. But beneath it all is that sense of her God-given passion: her unquenchable love for the waves, the boards, the deep blue.
Bethany Hamilton’s approach to life since her traumatic accident has been marked by perseverance and deep trust in God. Learning to persevere can be a challenging process. Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone. These Focus on the Family resources can help guide and encourage you and your family during tough times:
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.