Bethany Hamilton doesn’t really want to talk about when a tiger shark bit her left arm off when she was 13. This is understandable, since she’s been telling and retelling the story — on talk shows, in her autobiography, and in the fictional film “Soul Surfer” (2011) — since it happened in 2003.
The problem that documentarian Aaron Lieber faces, and fails to overcome, in his film “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable,” is that most everything that has happened to Hamilton since is linked to that shark attack.
The movie shows Hamilton’s life before the accident, using home movies and interviews with friends to describe her childhood in Hawaii and her love of surfing. Even at 13, she was winning surf competitions and being scouted as a budding professional prospect.
Then the shark attack happened. The movie doesn’t spend much time detailing that moment, assuming that anyone buying a ticket for this documentary probably saw “Soul Surfer” and knows the details.
The movie then jumps into Hamilton’s rehabilitation, and figuring out how to surf again, now with only her right arm. But she did, and worked to become a pro again — though, as the documentary tells it, the strain of being a sudden media star and role model for perseverance made it difficult to focus on surfing.
The bulk of the documentary focuses on Hamilton’s life in the last decade or so. She met, fell in love with and, in 2013, married Adam Dirks — with whom she is now raising two small boys. (The second, born in March 2018, wasn’t born yet when the documentary was filmed.) Together, they have continued their charity work, and competed as a team on “The Amazing Race” in 2014.
Dirks has also encouraged Hamilton as she has tried to rebuild her pro surfing career, and Lieber dutifully details the competitions and the different styles of surfing Hamilton is crossing off her checklist. These passages are more like an extreme-sports movie than a personality-driven documentary, and only hardcore surf fans are likely to enjoy them.
By the end credits, “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” feels less like a documentary than a collection of infomercial material to promote Hamilton’s charity, her motivational speaking gigs, and her surf-product sponsors. There’s no doubt Hamilton has a fascinating story to tell, but this movie shies away from telling the most important parts.
‘Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable’
Opening Friday, July 12, in theaters nationwide, including Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy) and Megaplex at The District (South Jordan). Rated PG for some thematic elements. Running time: 99 minutes.