America first saw Bethany Hamilton as the 13-year-old surfer who lost her arm to a tiger shark.
A new documentary, “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable,” follows 2011’s “Soul Surfer” dramatization of Hamilton’s ascendency as a world-class surfer. This sequel captures the essence of this fearless Christian athlete and what her story offers the world.
Back in 2010 this reporter was invited to Hawaii by Tri-Star Pictures to see scenes filmed for Soul Surfer and interview those involved in the production. During an interview session, reporters were astounded by the then-19-year-old’s answer to the following question: “The Lord has used this incident in your life to help others, but if you could go back to that day, would you have stayed out of the water?”
“Umm … no,” she thoughtfully began. “It was God’s will for it to happen. So much good has come out of what seems like a terrible thing, and it’s been an amazing journey. I’m still doing what I want to do. More than what I ever dreamed of. And I know that God’s in control, that this has been a part of His plan.”
For many, Soul Surfer lacked the intensity or depth that Hamilton’s story demanded. Her tale is one not so much of what was lost but what she found. Her faith increased rather than diminished after the shark’s onslaught, and various critics felt it didn’t transfer onto the screen.
In Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, Hamilton, now a wife and mother, takes on her greatest sports challenge: the biggest wave of her career (ironically named “Jaws”).
Made in 2018, the PG-rated documentary from ES Entertainment, opening in theaters July 12, is beautifully shot and emotionally impactful. What’s more, care has been taken to give viewers a clean movie about wave-conquering athletes. And though the young women are always in swimwear, the camera never lewdly ogles them.
As with Soul Surfer, presumably in an attempt to garner a larger audience than just that of the faith-based community, this movie is more about Bethany’s determination to overcome the waves than about her spiritual growth.
The intent of the filmmakers is to reflect the true nature of athletes as they challenge nature, their bodies and their minds. But while it speaks to young women about self-empowerment, the documentary also offers a pronounced philosophy concerning overcoming and succeeding. It maintains that while people can direct you toward your goal, ultimately it’s up to you to fight for your success.
There are subtle messages about family and faith, but many who have heard Bethany proclaim her devotion to God through Jesus Christ may be somewhat disappointed that there isn’t a bit more biblical influence in the film.
With that in mind, the following suggested DVD companion may be spiritually rewarding.
“Heart of a Soul Surfer,” a 2007 documentary available on Amazon, does present the Gospel message upfront and unapologetically. It contains dialogue between believers and those who don’t understand what people like Bethany Hamilton have found, despite what they’ve lost.
As with the new theatrical release, Heart of a Soul Surfer features exclusive footage of Bethany before and after the attack, including her first attempts at surfing with one arm as well as her winning the 2005 NSSA National Surfing Championship in the Explorer Women’s event just 19 months later, besting the reigning champion and a six-time champion.
Heart of a Soul Surfer raises the question: Why do these things happen? And young Bethany answers the question, then and now, based on a heartfelt faith in Jesus.
— by Phil Boatwright
Phil Boatwright is the author of “MOVIES: The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Really Bad,” available on Amazon.com. BP news.