by Tim Ross

This is the time of year when many allergy sufferers can’t leave their homes without a pocketful of Kleenex. If they’re headed out to see “Soul Surfer,” they’re ahead of the tide because this film is a four-tissue tear-jerker for sure.

Based on the real-life story of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton, “Soul Surfer” does a good job of balancing on the crest of the wave in terms of becoming too preachy or emotional.

Yes, surfing analogies abound as director Sean McNamara, who also co-wrote the screenplay, navigates between the religious message of Bethany’s faith and story and the dramatic arc of a young woman whose dream is shattered and must somehow find the strength to rebuild it.

Rarely do McNamara and his cast cross the line into proselytizing or playing the emotional card just for tears, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Much of the credit goes to AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Hamilton with the maturity of someone far older.

Robb may be young but her acting pedigree goes back to the mid-2000s with major roles in “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Bridge to Terabithia.” Robb looks the role and she understands the fragility of being a teenager while also possessing the resolve of a world-class athlete like Hamilton.

We first meet Hamilton on the verge of a promising career as a professional surfer. She’s still a teenager, but is winning major events and catching the eye of a big-time surfing sponsor. In advance of an important competition, Hamilton is attacked by a shark in what is not only a stunningly rare event but under a set of particularly terrible circumstances.

It happened in an otherwise completely calm bay at a surfing locale that’s only reachable by a long drive, a hike through a forest and then a descent down a cliff. That Hamilton not only survived the attack but also the long odyssey to get to the hospital is testament of her resolve.

From there, the film follows Hamilton’s long road to recovery and her search for meaning in the horrible accident that befell her – a search that takes her into the realm of religion. It’s a faith-based film, but it’s also a sports film about overcoming massive odds. It’s David and Goliath on a surfboard.

Hamilton’s parents are played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, and neither disappoint, nor does Lorraine Nicholson (Jack’s daughter) as Alana Blanchard, Hamilton’s best friend and fellow competitor. The accident, which Blanchard witnessed, is nearly as traumatic for her as it is for Hamilton. Nicholson portrays that struggle well.

The only weak link in the cast is Carrie Underwood, who’s in over her head. She plays a counselor who helps Hamilton find her way through a mission trip as well as with spiritual and religious reminders, but Underwood looks uncomfortable in the role and becomes uncomfortable to watch.

Aside from that, “Soul Surfer” has a lot of good going for it and very little bad, so grab some tissues and catch the next wave to the theater to catch this inspiring film.

Grade: 3/4 Stars