'Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A conventional hagiopic.

Aaron Lieber's documentary biopic tells the story of one-armed surf champ Bethany Hamilton.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is a feature-length tribute to the champion surfer who lost an arm to a tiger shark at age 13 and came back to thrive and conquer. Director Aaron Lieber, a surf specialist who shoots his own footage on the waves, followed Hamilton over four years, and weaves interviews with her family and friends alongside home-video and archival material, including a smattering of excerpts from Hamilton's appearances on Oprah and other talk shows during her teenage years.

Fans of the surfer's 2004 memoir Soul Surfer, made into a 2011 film of the same name with Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid as Hamilton's parents, should appreciate the chance to check in, with Bethany now balancing marriage and motherhood with wild-card jaunts on the pro circuit.

Beginning with Bethany preparing to surf one of the world's monster big waves (nicknamed, somewhat ironically, "Jaws"), the doc cycles back to fill in the background on her childhood in Hawaii, where the youngster was coming up with Carissa Moore and other future stars on the local circuit. Barely into her teens and already sponsored by Rip Curl, the young Bethany is all shy smiles, while the adult version — one of a series of talking heads cut to by editor Carol Martori throughout — is full of praise for her parents, keen surfers who worked three jobs each to give their daughter and two sons an idyllic childhood on Kauai.

The closest we get to the shark that altered the course of Bethany's life is footage of a local turning over her chomped board after the attack, shaking his head in awestruck wonder. There's little in the way of reenactment besides impressionistic chumming of the water, and scant discussion of the incident itself, in which Hamilton was bitten while out paddling with lifelong best friend and future pro Alana Blanchard. Despite Blanchard's father using a surfboard leash as a tourniquet, Bethany lost over half her volume in blood. Call me a gore-hound, but some recounting of these facts might have filled in some details for Hamilton newbies.

Camcorder footage of Bethany in hospital, surrounded by family and fellow surfers, is quietly affecting, with the girl at pains to assure everybody else that's it no big deal. A moment later on, in which she recounts the recurring nightmare of trying to extricate her legs from the creature's jaws, makes her immediate determination to get back in the water all the more astounding. Training herself how to surf one-handed, and aided by a handle grafted onto her board by her father so that she can duck-dive, the now 15-year-old Bethany eventually returns to San Clemente, Calif., the site of the annual amateur national competition, and takes out first prize.

Her ambition to enter the pro circuit follows a less smoothly triumphant arc. Watching as the friends she came up with break onto the world stage, Hamilton grinds through the rigorous process to make it on tour, competing at events around the world only to fall at the last hurdle in a heat in which she's beaten by best friend Blanchard. Upset and increasingly overwhelmed by media obligations, Bethany finds solace in beau Adam Dirks, whom she marries mere months after meeting. Faith is a cornerstone of the couple's life, though it's emphasized less heavily here than in Becky Baumgartner's 2007 short doc Heart of a Soul Surfer.

Lieber ends things back in Fiji, with Bethany, now toting a baby boy, competing as a wild-card entrant alongside the best in the world at the Fiji Pro. Her success there, beating two world champs in heats only to fall to the eventual victor, gives the film a neatly rousing climax, though it's nicely shaded by the admitted skepticism of fellow pro surfers such as Moore, who admits that Bethany's name on the schedule had begun to induce eye-rolling. Fiji reminds everyone, including Hamilton herself, that she can cut it with the best, and the film's clear message is that Bethany would be a world champ by now if the accident had never happened, though not, perhaps, the person she is today.

The whole thing looks as glossy as any of the filmmaker's spots for Nike, and though surf competition is not exactly suspenseful (at least for the uninitiated), the many vivid sequences on the waves are enough to justify the pic's presence on the big screen.

Director: Aaron Lieber

Screenwriters: Carol Martori, Aaron Lieber

Producers: Aaron Lieber, Penny Edmiston, Jane Kelly Kosek

Executive producers: Shannon Millard, Tracey Gluck, Jeff Brooks, Erin Brooks

Cinematographer: Aaron Lieber

Editor: Carol Martori

Music: Kris Bowers

Sales: Submarine

98 minutes.