Safe But Entertaining

When going in to a Nicholas Sparks film, there are a few things that can usually be taken for granted. There will likely be a guy and a girl who meet under unlikely circumstances. One or both of them will be hesitant to love again because they’ve been hurt in the past. Eventually there will be a conversation in which all is revealed, and they’ll fall hard for each other. Of course, in the end someone usually dies to give the love story a bittersweet resolution. “Safe Haven” strays from the classic Sparks formula in a few ways, though it’s still quite obviously a Nicholas Sparks movie from start to finish.

One of the biggest departures in “Safe Haven” lies in the fact that the movie incorporates elements of a thriller into the romantic backdrop of the film. This serves to create the tension that the film runs on, leaving viewers wondering whether Katie (Julianne Hough) is a criminal on the run from a dogged Boston police detective (David Lyons). This doesn’t mean that the film is an action movie, however; despite having the trappings of a thriller, “Safe Haven” is still a Nicholas Sparks film through and through.

Another change to the Sparks formula comes in the form of “Safe Haven” not being a tearjerker like most of the other films based on his works; the only death in the film occurs before the movie starts. Male lead Alex (Josh Duhamel) is a widower who runs the local store in the North Carolina town of Southport, tasked with raising a young son and daughter after his wife succumbed to cancer. This sets Alex up as a sympathetic character, likeable and charming but not trying to rush into anything when Katie gets off of the bus in his town.

Aside from those deviations, much of the film plays out as you would expect a Nicholas Sparks movie to be. Katie decides to stay in Southport when she stops there on a bus layover, renting a house and trying her best to blend in and lay low. Alex tries to befriend her, being the good guy that he is. She gradually finds herself adapting to life in the small town, making friends with her neighbors and inching closer to being more than just friends with Alex and his small family. All of this works toward the ultimate reveal of what really happened before Katie left Boston and why Detective Tierney is trying so hard to find her.

Director Lasse Hallstrom seems comfortable with the subject matter, which really isn’t any wonder, considering how much experience he has with Nicholas Sparks’ material. In addition to having previously directed Sparks’ “Dear John,” Hallstrom also adapted the screenplays for the Sparks films “The Shipping News” and “The Cider House Rules.” In ” Safe Haven,” he took a few liberties with the pacing and layout of the book, but the changes he made were for the best; they really help set the tone and carry the plot through the limited screen time of the film. If left in their original order, the scenes would have created a chaotic mess of a film.

Also notable in this movie is how at ease the actors seem in their roles. Almost every performance seems relatively natural, helping sell a story that might otherwise have seemed forced or even a bit hokey at times. Duhamel, in particular, does a great job of playing Alex, portraying him as a genuinely nice man who carries a lot of pain and responsibility on his shoulders but refuses to let it get him down. Another wonderful actor is Mimi Kirkland, the girl who plays Alex’s daughter. Her onscreen chemistry with Hough’s Katie is one of the best parts of the film, bar none.