Friday, February 15, 2013

Safe Haven: A truly delightful surprise

Safe Haven (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Films made from Nicholas Sparks novels tend to follow a predictable — and quite irritating — pattern.

Could anything be more cute and cuddly? Having finally learn to trust the joy of getting
to know new people, Katie (Julianne Hough, center left) finds herself falling in love with
Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his two children, Josh (Noah Lomax) and Lexie (Mimi Kirkland).
Alas, Katie's past threatens to catch up with her, a development that could mean ... ah,
but you'll have to discover that for yourself.
We meet two or more engaging characters in the first act, often but not always young people, at least one of whom carries a Heavy Burden. A relationship develops in the second act, often built on a foundation of Valentine’s Day-perfect dialogue that overcomes initial shyness or mutual wariness. Written correspondence often (always?) plays a key role.

We get to know and like this couple, and feel they deserve happiness. Then whoosh, fresh tragedy strikes — sometimes unbelievably contrived (remember what happens to Richard Gere, at the end of Nights in Rodanthe?) — that leads to a bleak and shattering epilogue. But that’s okay, y’know, because those left behind are grateful for the experience, having grown into better human beings.

Lather, rinse and repeat.

Message in a Bottle was the first Sparks novel to hit the big screen, back in 1999; true to form, it concludes on a grim note. Things improved with The Notebook, due both to that novel’s structure and the 2004 film’s sensational cast. But since then, we’ve slogged through a series of soggy, manipulative and increasingly unsatisfying tear-jerkers, often selected as vehicles for up-and-coming young stars: Dear John (Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried), The Last Song (Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth) and The Lucky One (Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling).

Great stuff for folks who enjoy having their emotions yanked about, I suppose, but far too much been there, endured that for the rest of us.

No surprise, then, that I greeted the impending arrival of Safe Haven with very little enthusiasm.

Which simply goes to show the folly of assumptions. The thoroughly enjoyable Safe Haven is by no means typical of Sparks’ overworked formula; indeed, if I hadn’t known of his involvement going in, I’d have assumed that some other writer had concocted the tale. (Until the epilogue, anyway, at which point we smile, nod and say Ah, yes, there’s the Nicholas Sparks touch. But that’s okay in this case.)

I’d be inclined to credit Lasse Hallström for the more measured approach; the Swedish-born director has eschewed false sentimentality in an impressive string of dramas and gentle romantic comedies that includes What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and The Shipping News. Then again, Hallström previously teamed with Sparks for the thoroughly unsatisfying Dear John ... so perhaps this new film’s success has more to do with the way scripters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens adapted Sparks’ book.

Or, more likely, it’s simply one of those cases where everything works.

We meet Boston-based Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough) on the run, fleeing in terror from the scene of some crime, and barely boarding a bus ahead of police pursuit. She travels long and far; when the bus allows passengers to stretch their legs briefly in the tiny coastal town of Southport, N.C., she impulsively decides to stay. After all, she’s re-inventing her life; this seems as good a place as any.

She secures a job waitressing at the local café, and rents an isolated, somewhat dilapidated cabin in the woods, far from any possible neighbors. And tries to maintain a low profile.

But that’s a hopeless challenge, because even Katie’s thinnest wisp of a smile is fetching ... on top of which, she’s a kind and intelligent young woman who really isn’t cut out for being a recluse. She’s therefore understandably charmed by Lexie (the utterly adorable Mimi Kirkland), the little girl staffing the register at the local grocery store; that naturally leads to a meeting with Lexie’s father, Alex (Josh Duhamel), and her just slightly older brother, Josh (Noah Lomax, recently seen in Playing for Keeps).

They carry the hovering burden of lingering heartbreak, Alex having lost his wife to cancer a few years earlier. Lexie was too young to be affected deeply, but Josh usually lingers on the sidelines of any activity, his face pinched with misery and anger. Lomax handles all this quite well.

Alex can’t help being attracted to this newcomer, despite Katie’s initial efforts to keep her distance. She’s encouraged to do otherwise by her developing friendship with another local, Jo (Cobie Smulders, well recognized from TV’s How I Met Your Mother), a cheerful, practical sort who points out that life is what you make it ... so why not make the most of it?

And, so, Katie begins to relax. The catalyst is a bicycle; the breakthrough occurs during a fishing excursion for two, which (of course!) gets interrupted by bad weather. After all, nothing is more delectably romantic than a couple caught in a heavy rainstorm, soaking wet and wanting to fall into each other’s arms. (Let’s not forget the climatic, triumphant and equally rain-drenched kiss between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, in The Notebook.)

These tender scenes are intercut, however, with the ongoing efforts of Boston police detective Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), who is determined to close this case by tracking and finding Katie. This seems an impossible challenge, since Katie departed at a random stop. But this is the 21st century age of security cameras and fax machines that instantly transmit all-points-bulletins ... and wanted posters.

And so we wonder, despite having grown to like and care for Katie, precisely what she did, back in Boston. Hallström teases us mercilessly, each time revealing just a little bit more of the scene she fled.

More than that, you’ll not get from me.

Hough, also an established country singer, has come a long way since her high-profile — and champion — stint on TV’s Dancing with the Stars. Early films, no surprise, focused on her singing and dancing skills: Burlesque, Rock of Ages and the remake of Footloose. Her acting was a bit rough, particularly in the latter, but she has learned quickly; she’s quite appealing here as Katie, and delivers a credible blend of circumspection and vulnerability.

Hough also blossoms well, as Katie begins to trust Alex and the rest of her new Southport friends. Indeed, she and Duhamel share the all-important spark that’s so essential in such stories.

Duhamel is charm personified, a side of his character not granted any exposure in the noisy, macho Transformer movies. But he did shine, in a similar romantic manner, in 2010’s under-appreciated Ramona and Beezus; given the full radiance of his grin and goofy charisma, I doubt any woman could resist him.

The unexpected element, though — given that this is a Nicholas Sparks story — is the deft way in which Hallström slowly builds tension into these events. The emotional angst may remain foremost — Katie gradually relaxing, Alex deciding that perhaps it’s time to stop mourning his wife’s death — but a sidebar element of uncertainty lends urgency to this hesitant, budding relationship.

Hallström and his crew actually filmed in Southport, which grants the story a pleasant aura of authenticity (although Alex’s store was constructed for the shoot). The small-town atmosphere is laid-back and casual, with production designer Kara Lindstrom and cinematographer Terry Stacey giving everything a coastal, sun-faded appearance: slightly washed-out blues, whites and other earth tones. Frankly, it looks like a delightful place to vacation (and probably will earn a tourist uptick, thanks to this film).


In the wake of last year’s The Lucky One, I was ready to swear off Nicholas Sparks movies. Forever.

But I’d cheerfully watch Safe Haven a second time. And if it’s indicative of growth and greater complexity in Sparks’ novels, I’ll approach the next big-screen adaptation more optimistically.

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