Film Reviews

Faith in Branded Content?

Inspiring Bethany Hamilton doc rides new wave of brand integration


Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Aaron Lieber

No matter your beliefs, take the kids to see Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable. This faith-based surfing documentary (yes, that’s a thing) offers a compelling and inspiring story of commitment and perseverance. Unstoppable finds a great character in Bethany Hamilton, an American surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack at age 13 and rebounded with a lucrative professional career. Buoyed by her faith but driven by her belief in herself and love for the surf, Hamilton is an unshakably positive force. Even a cynical atheist with a dozen years of (unconvincing) Catholic school under his belt can’t help but be amazed by the heart and spirit of this film’s upbeat subject.

Hamilton’s faith doesn’t overwhelm Unstoppable and while it’s a central aspect to her conviction, confidence, and fortitude, director Aaron Lieber keeps the film accessible for a wide audience. The doc features an impressive range of coverage of Hamilton’s career as it begins and ends with her latest challenge: to ride a massive wave known as “Jaws” off the coast of Hawaii. “Jaws” is a fitting metaphor to prove how Hamilton conquered the beast of the sea that clipped her wing as she reflects upon her journey to this intimidating feat. The film offers extensive archival footage of the young Hamilton as she rides the waves and adapts her new body to the passion that fuels her. Even as a teenager, she shows a spirit that can’t be shaken.

Hamilton’s story has been told before in her memoir, countless profiles, and the dramatic film Soul Surfer (2011), but audiences unfamiliar with her story will inevitably be taken by her perseverance and spirit. The film’s target audience might be the surfers and faithful who have followed Hamilton’s career across her previous appearances, and if the film preaches to the converted, Hamilton’s fans probably haven’t had such an energetic and all-encompassing portrait. If it doesn’t add anything to the Hamilton story, Unstoppable might be the fullest and most professionally composed version.

Lieber, who previously directed the surfing docs Lakey Preston: Zero to 100 (2013) and The Pursuit (2008), offers some exhilarating footage of Hamilton on the water. This handsome and energetically shot film lets viewers ride the wave to understand the near religious experience Hamilton enjoys on her surfboard. The question of why she returned following the attack is obvious. As an interviewee, Hamilton is unshakably upbeat and positive about her experience, providing a guide for young viewers to see adversity as an opportunity to challenge themselves and become stronger in the process.

Admittedly, a subject inevitably feels so inspiring when a film portrays her with such a hagiographic and uncritical lens. While Lieber scores commendable access to Hamilton’s life and provides footage of the surfer’s highs and lows, the approach is soft by any measure. Some sequences, like Hamilton’s exhausting teenage press junket, acknowledging the strain it caused on her career but offer little else, and fuelling a similar media frenzy when she trains harder than ever before while pregnant. Why Hamilton feels the need for such a spotlight, or that taking a break may be a sign of weakness, are questions the film doesn’t ask.

The doc is also made in association with surfing sportswear line Rip Curl and, of all things, Corkcicle—that frozen stick that chills white wine—since Hamilton is an ambassador of both brands. Unstoppable is another entry in a growing field of soft PR/branded content documentaries, a fascinating new reality, especially in sports docs, that makes the doc especially notable for non-fiction filmmakers eager to explore opportunities for financing and the questions they bring. Hamilton’s sponsors understandably want to spread the surfer’s inspirational spirit and this brand integration isn’t unique to this documentary. It’s just a bit closer in the church/state relationship than one would like. (Although Corkcicle’s physical product never appears in the doc, Rip Curl is omnipresent.)

These elements are admittedly minor quibbles by a critic probing the film’s objectivity. Lieber makes clear Hamilton’s desire to be a role model and to change perceptions about the physical limitations of the body. Squeaky-clean doc subjects can sometimes be less exciting than salacious deviants can, but Hamilton’s resilience is hard to ignore. At a time when everyone needs someone to believe in and our leaders offer few options for positive role models, Bethany Hamilton provides an inspiring example who proves that hard work, dedication, and faith in oneself can push a person to do anything she or he dreams.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable opens in Toronto on July 26 and expands August 2.