The story of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer back on the waves only one month after losing her right arm to a shark attack, is an incredibly inspiring and powerful one. It inspired a fiction film named Soul Surfer, which was certainly clichéd and predictable at points (“I don’t need easy. I just need possible” being one particularly eye-rolling line), but, as far as I can remember (the last time I saw it being several years ago), treated this material with enough depth and feeling to stand tall as a worthy retelling.
However, Hollywood proved yet again that they never know when to leave well enough alone by giving this material the documentary treatment with Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable (God, does that title make me groan). It will certainly please Hamilton’s fans, and will probably even win some new converts to her cause, but has little reason to exist beyond that.
Sure, we get to see her “underwater wedding” (too bad we get zero information on the relationship leading to that, though) and cute baby son, but they don’t really add anything to this tale that we couldn’t have already found on YouTube or Wikipedia. Worse, the struggles that Hamilton had to face after losing her arm, which were front and center in Surfer, are conveniently glossed over here in favor of montage-heavy scenes of her riding the surf and appearing on a variety of popular TV shows, the former of which admittedly is shown very beautifully—so beautifully, in fact, that it doesn’t take long for the film to start feeling more like a travel commercial than a documentary.
If you liked the film, you’re probably really annoyed at me by now for not respecting it for what it was. After all, Roger Ebert was the one who said that a movie review should determine if a film succeeded at what it set out to achieve, and I believe that Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable did that. It set out to be a simple, shallow, yet extremely well-shot look at the life of a famously uplifting figure, and even with the first 20 minutes or so appearing to be edited in a blender, it still achieved those goals all but perfectly. Nothing more, nothing less.