At first blush, it’s possible to confuse Safe Haven for the previous Nick Sparks movie, The Lucky One. Nobody would cite romance stories as a genre marked by originality — when I worked at a library the filing system was literally “shove them into the carousel racks wherever they’ll fit” they were so interchangeable — but these plots are even closer than usual. Both feature an out-of-tower carrying more psychological than physical baggage into a small, coastal southern community where they fall in love with a local who comes complete with adorable kid(s), a quietly wise older relative, and their own issues. That said, Safe Haven does eventually distinguish itself as one of the most violent of Sparks’ batch of sappy stories.
The out-of-owner this time is the woman, Katie (Julianne Hough), a young blonde who gets off of a bus from Boston to Atlanta at an inexplicable stop in a tiny seaside town in South Carolina, and she decides to stay. She quickly snags a position at a booming restaurant and buys a shack out in the woods to have as little contact with people as possible. Still, she find herself visited by Jo (Cobie Smulders), a s much of a neighbor as there is outside of town.
We know she’s on the run from something; she’s haunted by dreams of an altercation, a knife, blood. But the detective (David Lyons) who puts out the nationwide alert for her as a murder suspect is made up like an extra in Contagion, so we know he’s not exactly a nice guy. It’s not too hard to guess that she’s the real victim here.
Anyway, she catches the eye of Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower raising the syrupy young Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and the sullen Josh (Noah Lomax) with the help of his uncle, Roger (Red West). After some initial reticence on her part, the attraction is mutual, and Nicholas Sparks fly.
Duhamel is genial and charismatic enough; it’s not the most demanding role, but he seems comfortable in it. Unfortunately the major focus is on Hough, and she doesn’t read at all like she’s been on the receiving end of any sort of abuse. Yes, she gets scared at times, but it always feels scripted. She shrinks into a corner, but there’s no fear in her eyes. She wants to avoid people, but she takes a job interacting with everyone, and everything from her body language to her wardrobe screams “carefree”.
But the worst part — the one that has everyone talking — is the weak M. Night Shyamalan twist at the very end, too late to have any real effect but obvious much earlier to anyone paying attention. Even Shyamalan once knew to use a little misdirection to cover the dead giveaways.
Lasse Hallström may be good at directing sentimentalist claptrap like Sparks puts out, but the abject failure of the third act and the twist just goes to show that the moment a story requires an ounce of subtlety or a shift in tone, they’re just not up to the task.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.