by MAXWELL NEELY-COHEN
dir. Lasse Hallström
When I was 15, not long after switching from a D.C. public school to a small, notoriously liberal private school, I discovered that among all of my friends I was the only avowed atheist. We sat at a beach house passing around a large bowl filled with anonymously written questions, the first one being “does god exist?” While some did not believe in a single paternal Judeo-Christian god, all had faith in some sort of grand proto-spirtual metaphysical force. All, except me. This, in a school with maybe three Republicans, in the most statistically liberal geographic voting bloc in the United States.
Two days later I watched my first (his second) Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, stunned to discover in A Walk To Remember that rural America’s high schools were supposedly so filled with teenage atheists that a single student (played by Mandy Moore) believing in God was openly mocked.
Eleven years and $453 million later, Safe Haven is the eighth Nicholas Sparks film adaptation.
When it begins, we are greeted by frantically cut visions of a brunette Katie (Julianne Hough) running away from a house barefoot in a drab blue dress, skin splotched with blood beneath a cloudy sky. Interlaced with white titles on a black screen, she sprints into a neighbor’s home and is comforted by an old lady.
The next thing we know she is blonde, under a grey hoodie, under a leather jacket, and under nighttime rain, evading a cop (David Lyons) at a bus station as if she is a Mara sister in a badly shot Fincher flick.
But with her escape the sun comes out, and the familiar Sparksian vaguely-Americana singer-songwriter soundtrack accompanies a montage of arriving in the coastal town of Southport, North Carolina. And once again, there are sandy paths, fishing boats, and small seafood restaurants on piers. The majority of Nicholas Sparks films and books are set along the Atlantic coast, and in all of them water plays a major role, as if any chance of romance is useless for those of us not directly adjacent to a picturesque beach or stream.
Safe Haven proceeds to tell the story of Katie’s attempt to start over in this small town, where of course there is a good-looking widower (Josh Duhamel) with two children and no edge whatsoever running the general store. Katie gets a job as a waitress, suffers extreme paranoia and nightmares concerning her past, and learns to love again over canoeing and plaid shirts and beach outings with little children who tell her to paint her floor yellow.
Her only platonic adult friend is Jo (Cobie Smuthers), whose every single line manages to be a cliché, even when she becomes a metaphysical dreamwalker (“I love the way the light comes through the trees,” or “take a lot of pictures, you’ll only regret the ones you didn’t take.”)
All of the above is interspersed with shots of Lyons as a police detective hunting Katie from his office in Boston, switching between a police procedural and someone screaming “there-are-second-acts-in-America-life (!!!),” as if the film is a philosophical battle between Nicholas Sparks and Anti-Nicholas Sparks. That is until multiple twist endings warp the absurdity into M. Night Shyamalan territory.
There is no evidence in Hough’s performance of the slutty reverend’s daughter she played in the 2011 remake of Footloose, no glimpses of the professional dancer portraying a teenager who spends her nights grinding in fast food parking lots to Three Six Mafia. The only scenes in Safe Haven where Hough dances she is a passive partner. The only indications of her other career are visible in the agility she uses to avoid the drying paint on her cottage floor.
Duhamel, on the other hand, lacks the cult of personality usually associated with a Sparksian male romantic interest. He is not The Gosling, The Efron, or The Tatum, not worthy of a “The,” not ever going to book a role as Soderbergh stripper, getaway driver, or Nicole Kidman kink jailbait.
Safe Haven is the second Sparks adaptation to feature a villainous abusive police officer as an antagonist. (Along with The Efron’s pseudo-incestuous, a-new-younger-exmarine-boyfriend-replaces-my-dead-younger-exmarine-brother, The Lucky One.)
While it is certainly true that law enforcement officers boast a spousal abuse rate double the national average, both films want to have us believe that singular police officers are untouchable, that there are not divorce lawyers, judges, DA’s, and IA agents who have made their entire careers out of destroying bad cops, and that women will never have the strength to fight an abuser without a new man stepping into the picture.
Welcome to the world of Nicholas Sparks. Caller ID, landlines, and digital cameras are all major plot-driving devices, even though we clearly see children playing with iphones. God is always present, even when left out of the dialogue. He’s always there to drop a rainstorm so you have a convenient opportunity for making out, always willing to bring someone back as a ghost to give you fabulous advice. Never does faith go unrewarded. Ever.
Of course, Safe Haven is just another in a long series of attempts to capitalize on the success of The Notebook, the movie (and novel) that plucked Nicholas Sparks from the sea of other bestselling neo-romance writers and placed him on the altars bookshelves of sorority girls everywhere. There have even been non-Nicholas Sparks Nicholas Sparks movies (Charlie St. Cloud, The Vow), which always star actors and actresses who have appeared or would end up appearing in his work.
There was a time, before The Notebook, where thinking Ryan Gosling was the sexiest man alive was solely the province of proto-hipsters and film geeks, aroused by the idea that some Mickey Mouse Club kid could play a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer. But that’s how powerful The Notebook was, propelling The Gosling on his way to becoming the most feminist male American sex symbol in history.
At a party in 2006 I met a high-ranking executive of a large multinational advertising agency who explained to me that sometime during the late 1990s American females became particularly susceptible to something she called the “plight of the poor little trapped rich white girl.” While the character trope has a long history (see: William Shakespeare or John Hughes) I was told that somewhere along the upward curve in mass-media, standard of living, and evolution of adolescent heartthrobbery it had become the dominant romantic narrative to sell to young American women. This was opposed to, for example, the rags to riches tale of Pretty Woman, the foremost romantic film fantasy of the prior decade or so, and the highest grossing “romantic comedy” of all time.
By making the female protagonist rich (and with unforgiving parents) instead of poor you change up the “normal” order of events. Landing the guy is no longer the way to landing the pretty expensive stuff. You combine the dramas of familial pressure, guilt of privilege, suffocating misogyny, and cross-class dating, all starting from a fantasy of materialistic wish fulfillment (one that so many corporations have worked hard for decades to imbue in young female consumers). As the marketing executive explained to me, “Rose in Titanic only gets to wear the diamond in that story if she’s rich.” This was why Sparks had been so successful with The Notebook, she said.
Whether or not I think she was right, what is particularly interesting about the enduring success of such dramatic works is most of the people who consume them will never date, let alone marry, someone outside of their own class or ethnic background. That despite the fact that the outright social taboos are gone, a modern day Sybil from Downton Abbey marrying her family’s chauffeur would still cause gossip and raised eyebrows. All measures of social mobility in the United States, even including marriage, are at historic lows. In a very different way our society might be as hostile to straight women pursuing the kind of love from The Notebook as it is to gay men pursuing the kind of love from Brokeback Mountain.
In light of Twilight, the sands may have shifted, and the trapped rich white girl story may be already relegated to secondary status in favor of more metaphysical (and sometimes disturbingly regressive) romantic concerns. But it is still the arc that made Nicholas Sparks a household name. And even in Safe Haven, where the characters are theoretically working class, everyone still ends up with beautiful beachfront property or quaint forested cottages. And the bad guys end up wonderfully dead by grand confluences of natural forces or misdirected bullets. And not because Jessica Chastain sent some Navy Seals to kill them for her, or because Katniss Everdeen learned to hunt and put an arrow through their skulls, but because God, metaphysical spiritual force or otherwise, judged and deemed it so.
"Feet Off The Ground" - Three Six Mafia (mp3)
"Spirit in the Sky" - Norman Greenbaum (mp3)