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(The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival ran April 18-29 in Manhattan, NY. Hammer to Nail has all sorts of coverage coming your way so stay tuned…)

Born in 1990 to a family of surfing aficionados, young Bethany Hamilton seemed destined for ocean greatness when, in 2003, her left arm was bitten off by a tiger shark. Just 13, she was grateful to be alive, but unsure of what would come next. Somehow, after only 4 weeks, she was back on a board, and then, 2 years later, won the women’s division at the 2005 National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) competition. As profiled in director Aaron Lieber’s inspiring debut documentary, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, she is nothing if not indomitable. For those who may not know her – despite her spotlight in the media over the years and her 2004 book, Soul Surfer, or its 2011 cinematic adaptation – Lieber’s movie provides a beautifully photographed, comprehensive portrait that is the perfect introduction to her life and accomplishments. I imagine that her diehard fans will love it, too.

What makes Hamilton’s story especially affecting is how she has persevered through highs and lows. Since her surprising 2005 victory, competition wins have been harder to come by. Like any other person, then, she has found joys in other ways, including marriage, motherhood and her deep faith in Jesus Christ. The last part of that trifecta (or, since we’re talking religion, I’ll say triptych) is such a core part of Hamilton’s being that it can be, if one is not inclined to share her beliefs (I am in that category), perhaps a bit much. On the other hand, it’s her life and she can do what she wants with it. I particularly admire her insistence that pregnancy and childbirth not slow her down, and the film shows how the image of her rushing from surf to baby makes her a muse to her fellow female surfers. Perhaps one need not give up one dream in favor of another; being a mom and a contender are not mutually exclusive.

Using archival material and beautifully photographed new footage, Lieber presents Hamilton in all her guts and glory, as she surfs while nursing a newborn between rides, trains through the pain, and practices her moves on the daunting wave known as “Jaws” (traditional name Pe’ahi), off the coast of Maui. If I have one aesthetic criticism, it is over the movie’s score, which, occasionally overbearing as it can be, pushes the movie, at times, into something resembling an industry promo or ESPN special. The narrative, already filled with big beats, doesn’t need it. That aside, the film is engaging throughout. Trophies or no trophies, Bethany’s a winner.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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