Movie Review: Can Safe Haven Breathe New Life Into the Nicholas Sparks Formula?

Midway through Safe Haven, the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel (The Notebook, Dear John), Alex (Josh Duhamel) and Katie (Julianne Hough) find themselves in a dim, deserted diner, with a whimsical tune issuing from an old radio. They begin to play-act the roles of Nicholas Sparks lovers. Katie says she likes the song, whereupon Alex affectedly offers his hand in dance. Amid the bric-a-brac of small-town diner-shop inventory, the fledgling lovers sway, twirl, and dip self-consciously, unable to restrain their gleeful laughter. The inescapable first kiss, they—and we—know, is but moments away.

Intermittently, Safe Haven, helmed by the Swedish director Lasse Halstrom, betrays the trouble of finding freshness in a stale storyline, of enlivening an entire exhausted genre—or, more precisely, sub-genre: the Sparks romance (of which 2004’s The Notebook is the exemplar). Signs of this struggle for originality are conspicuous. The audience’s expectations are toyed with (but not, Heaven forbid, flouted outright). The inescapable first kiss is deferred, then deferred again. The film offers knowing nods to the trite conventions of the romance genre, as with Alex and Katie’s self-awareness in the diner dance sequence, but also invests these moments with an unexpected realism. And most consequentially, the threads of melodramatic romance in Safe Haven are woven together with a suspenseful thriller. Mostly, though,  Halstrom’s film basks in the ease of its color-by-the-numbers formula that ain’t broke, thank you very much.

This time, Katie, a wholesome blonde, has arrived in a sleepy, seaside, North Carolina town called Southport. It’s charming, quiet, and populated with Nautica model types, in their unbuttoned, sleeves-rolled beach shirts and faded, utilitarian jeans. Docks adorn the lip of the land, and colorful clapboard shops stand atop it. One of these—Ryan’s Port Market—is operated by widower Alex and his two children, the adorable Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and the crabby Josh (Noah Lomax). After finding a waitressing job and buying a fixer-upper in the woods, Katie lands up at Alex’s store, in need of paint and some essentials.

And the Sparks machine starts spinning.

Katie’s one visit to Alex’s shop turns into three. A car-ride home gives way to a gift of a home-built bicycle. She joins his family on a trip to the beach, where swimming and sandcastle-construction lead to intimate conversation about his kids. He invites her to a canoe-row through a creek, during which soul-baring involving his deceased wife dissolves into a thunderstorm, which dissolves into a wet run through the woods, which dissolves into a diner lunch, which dissolves into a diner dance, which dissolves into—at last!—the long-awaited kiss.

Along the way, they speak the flat dialogue that evinces lazy writing. When she arrives in Southport, Katie says enigmatically that she’s “looking for a change”; when Alex drops her home after the beach, she admits tenderly, “I had a great time”; when the pair row out to the middle of the tranquil creek, Alex discloses profoundly, “This is my favorite place in the whole world.” More predictable (yet no less maddening) is the one-dimensionality of the protagonists. Alex and Katie don’t even appear to have a single flaw between the two of them. He is the illusory perfect man: he loves his dead wife; he is devoted to his kids; his best friend is an elderly man; he works with his hands; he is sensitive; he is vulnerable; and (!) he is ruggedly handsome. She is no less ideal, no less imaginary. She is independent; she is sympathetic; she cares for his kids; she speaks openly and honestly; she, too, is vulnerable; and (!) she is positively arresting in a bikini. Alas, only the perfect are worthy of a Sparksist love!

But it is this romanticizing that ostensibly tees Safe Haven up—like all Sparks films—for a heartstring-plucking payout. Southport is idyllic, the perfect embodiment of a simplifying American nostalgia for small-town life. The episodes are basic, sweet, and heartwarming, as when Katie gigs her first fish and gifts it to Alex, or when Alex sifts through letters written by his wife before her death and addressed to Lexie on her wedding day and to Josh on the day of his graduation. In much the same way, the characters are reduced to handful of good qualities. Sparks works by taking slivers of reality—the easier, warmer, happier bits—and magnifying them to signify reality itself.

Why, then, is Katie always looking over her shoulder?

The second thread of Safe Haven’s plot is its true engine, providing tension, thrill, and narrative momentum. The film opens on a redbrick Boston house. A blood-soaked, brown-haired Katie bursts out the door and stumbles across a dark road to a neighbor’s home. Soon afterwards, a harried, blonde Katie is frantically purchasing a ticket and clambering onto a departing bus, with a Boston cop, Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), in hot pursuit. She escapes by a whisker.

On the lam, Katie eventually arrives in Southport, where she begins her life anew (“Life is full of second chances,” a character sagely observes). In the meanwhile, greasy, smoky-voiced Tierney steadily descends into a self-destructive obsession with Katie, who is accused, we come to learn, of murder in the first degree. Consumed, Tierney moves from door to door presenting a wrinkled photograph of brown-haired Katie (in which she resembles, I must note, Lana Del Rey). He sinks into alcoholism, growing violently agitated and aggressive as he works into the small hours of the morning. He wantonly violates department rules, prompting his captain to seize his police badge (producing another gem of a line: “Don’t take the badge, boss!”).

The interspersing of romance with thriller is handled surprisingly well, notwithstanding a smattering of plot holes. More surprising is that the Tierney storyline—which, soon enough, crashes in on Alex and Katie’s wonderland—manages (after a few false starts) a sustained and engrossing suspense. There is, in addition, a shocking reveal that switches the narrative into high gear. It is this—yes—spark of new, of freshness that serves to resuscitate Sparks’ romance. There is, in other words, something to see here, even if much of the film is something you’ve already seen before (and before and before). The thriller aspect injects vigor into a moribund sub-genre, keeping it breathing until at least the next time.

Safe Haven is lucky, in the end, that Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, and David Lyons fill its frames. Their confidence and control gives the film a much-needed boost. Hough and Duhamel animate the film with a charisma that is the alpha and omega of retreads. Nowhere is their magnetism more apparent than when they dance in that diner, at once knowing and forgetting that they step in the footsteps of all their Sparksist predecessors. And yet you, in spite of yourself, can’t stop watching.