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Movie review: 16 years after a shark attack, surfing inspiration Bethany Hamilton faces new challenges in 'Unstoppable'

“BETHANY HAMILTON: UNSTOPPABLE” — 3 stars — Bethany Hamilton, Adam Dirks, Kelly Slater, Alana Blanchard; PG (thematic elements); in general release; running time: 98 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been 16 years since a 14-foot tiger shark attacked teenage surf sensation Bethany Hamilton. As “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” opens, we see the grown and married surfer back in the ocean, preparing for her biggest (and perhaps most ironic?) challenge yet: a patch of treacherous waves off the coast of Maui dubbed “Jaws.”

Before we get too far into that story, “Unstoppable” flashes back to recap Hamilton’s well-publicized tale. After growing up in Hawaii with an almost preternatural instinct for surfing, Hamilton was well on her way to becoming a professional surfer when a shark attack robbed her of her left arm.

Bethany Hamilton doing a front side turn in the Maldives, from “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.”
Bethany Hamilton doing a front side turn in the Maldives, from “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.”
Aaron Lieber

Thanks to the pre-social media enthusiasm of her parents, we enjoy ample video footage of Hamilton’s early years surfing with fellow future pro Alana Blanchard, and we even sit at the side of her hospital bed mere hours after the shark attack.

“Unstoppable” doesn’t linger long on the incident, though, perhaps because Hamilton didn’t either: Four weeks after losing her arm, she was back in the water (we see that on video, too). What we do see is a lot of the incident's aftermath as Hamilton becomes an almost instant celebrity, and eventually, “Unstoppable” zeroes in on the challenges she has faced in the time since.

Some of these challenges are what you’d expect, including Hamilton struggling to get back to a place where she can qualify for professional competition. This alone feels like a tremendous feat, given the loss of her arm. But other challenges are a bit more down-to-earth as Hamilton grows up, gets married and eventually balances her career with motherhood.

Naturally, the story arcs back to Jaws, which represents one of a handful of professional-level skills like barrel riding and aerials that Hamilton is determined to achieve in spite of all her setbacks. There’s a kind of heartwarming character to the effort — especially when we see Hamilton taking care of her infant in between competition heats.

In addition to the home video footage, director Aaron Lieber packs “Unstoppable” with all sorts of interviews with family, friends and famous figures in the surf scene, and we even get a touching glimpse of Hamilton's spiritual side and how her faith has sustained her through the challenges.

Bethany, Adam and their son Tobias in the Maldives, from “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.”
Bethany, Adam and their son Tobias in the Maldives, from “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.”
Aaron Lieber

Thanks to the best of 21st-century video technology, there’s also a ton of action footage that shows Hamilton and other surfers braving a spectacular gauntlet of waves. If anything, “Unstoppable” suffers from an excess of this content, at times digging in a little too deep on story elements that don’t feel essential to the story.

In the wake of last year’s “Free Solo” — which depicted Alex Honnold’s rope-free climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan — the bar for inspirational adventure documentaries like “Unstoppable” has been raised to unfair heights (pun sort of intended). “Unstoppable” adds a new twist to an already inspiring story, but it's no “Free Solo,” and it doesn’t quite match the grandeur of the massive waves its subject rides.

Rating explained: “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” is rated PG for some frightening imagery.