"Unstoppable," Bethany Hamilton's new full-length documentary, is as inspiring as any feel-good sports movie, but never sappy or heavy-handed. It is real without being voyeuristic. The film is a swirling hybrid of performance-surf movie and documentary, simultaneously offering up gorgeous swells and gnarly maneuvers with an intimate look at Hamilton, who keeps coming back to the ocean despite its challenges.
"The ocean is so much for me: my passion and my love, and also my place for healing and reflection," Hamilton said in the film. "It's somewhere I can just be me."
Famous for her resilience, Hamilton has captured the public imagination since she was 13, when a tiger shark attack left her with one arm -- and she went back to surfing anyway. The film, which includes home video footage taken as she recovered in the hospital after the attack, shows us how even then she was already transforming her attack into an opportunity to practice perseverance. "Unstoppable" chronicles Hamilton's growth from childhood swimming lessons to professional surfer, from being a goofy little girl to becoming a parent.
Surfing is unique among sports in that it offers a naturally beautiful backdrop to incredible athleticism. "Unstoppable" is visually stunning, and not only portrays a female surfer as simply a rad surfer in her own right, but also tells a deeper version of what showing up can do, what healing is, and what connecting with the ocean can mean.
Telling Hamilton's story was important to director Aaron Lieber. When it was time to put the footage together, he knew he needed to surround himself with women in film. "It just [didn't] make sense to try to finish it with a bunch of dudes that all think the same way," Lieber said.
So he reached out to producers Penny Edmiston and Jane Kelly Kosek and to film editor Carol Martori. As they envisioned the arc of the film, Lieber and Martori made 3-by-5 cards of all the scenes and mapped them out. The team wanted to tell a hopeful story, one where people walk out of the theaters feeling happy, inspired and motivated.
Lieber's incredible footage, juxtaposed with poignant scenes shot by Hamilton's parents when she was a kid, tells a story of a little girl growing up and learning to become herself through her challenges.
Typical surf movies are characteristically dazzling and tend to purely showcase impressive surfing tricks, offering little in the way of a story. The strong narrative of "Unstoppable" pulls you along, and it's the moments of vulnerability that make it stand out from its surf movie predecessors.
In one scene, Hamilton is in Bali, training for aerial surfing. She gets pulled under a wave hard and hits her face on the reef. When she emerges from the water, her face is bleeding, her shoulders are shaking, and she's in tears. Moments like this, according to Lieber, show the trials of Hamilton's passion.
The film also depicts Hamilton's feelings when she unexpectedly became pregnant. Talking about her fears of becoming a mom was hard to share, she admitted, but said that "there's so many women that face those same feelings and struggles, and I just want to remind them that a lot of those fears are just gonna be dust after you have your baby."
For Martori, "Unstoppable" is not only about perseverance, but also transcendence. "People have a perception that women's abilities are limited. For people to move beyond certain levels of ability you need to see other people doing it, and you need to see that it's possible, and you need to see that there's a way through that, and Bethany gives us that path," Martori said. "For us to continue to improve, you need examples that show you can do that, and how it's done. We need to see more women's stories out there so women can see that it's possible, and to continue to build on those talents and skills."
Martori reminds us that this continued innovation and development is what sports is all about.
"A lot of life metaphors are so easily carried over from the ocean back to land," Hamilton told espnW. "You have these humongous waves or these really challenging waves, and you've just gotta paddle out there and ride them, regardless."
Hamilton's "Unstoppable" is the story of a fierce and elegant athlete who, by returning again and again to what she loves, shows us how to keep rising up like the surf.
The documentary premieres on Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival.