(by Dustin Putman
It's a solid bet that in every Nicholas Sparks best-seller and ensuing film adaptation, someone is going to end up dying by the end credits. "Safe Haven" is no different in this respect—and judging from the opening scene, where a young woman by the name of Katie (Julianne Hough) flees from her home bloodied and carrying a bag of presumed evidence, said demise just might be right from the start—but it deviates from the norm in other ways that may surprise fans and naysayers alike. Though never far from resembling 1991's "Sleeping with the Enemy" and the Stephen King tome "Rose Madder," "Safe Haven" isn't satisfied to exist solely as a well-lit, idyllically-set love story, but further involves by adding mystery, thriller, and other surprising genre elements into the mix. Sure, it's occasionally loopy, but also thoroughly suspenseful in spots and rather pleasant as a whole. Mark this one down in the rare "win" column for Sparks enthusiasts. Article continues below
Katie is running away from an abusive marriage and a crime she was forced to commit. With a new haircut and a change from brunette to blonde, she eludes the police, boards a bus headed for Atlanta, and decides along to way to stay put at a pit-stop in the sleepy coastal town of Southport, North Carolina. Purchasing a secluded fixer-upper and procuring a waitressing job at Ivan's Fish Shack, Katie hopes to start a new life for herself. In doing so, she befriends friendly neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders) and learns little by little to let her guard down when widowed father and convenience store owner Alex (Josh Duhamel) shows interest in her. For two troubled souls struggling to move on, a second chance at happiness suddenly seems like a real possibility. The truth about Katie's past, however, is destined to be revealed as the obsessive Detective Tierney (David Lyons) moves ever closer to locating her.
Director Lasse Hallström, who previously adapted another Nicholas Sparks book, "Dear John," in 2010, improves upon his work there because the script by Leslie Bohem (2011's "The Darkest Hour") and Dana Stevens (2002's "Life or Something Like It") is better and not as narratively pedestrian. "Safe Haven" sticks closely to some pretty egregious conventions at times—on a canoeing trip, Katie and Alex get caught in a rainstorm; when it is established that Alex's mopey son, Josh (Noah Lomax), likes to play on the boat at the dock, one need only wait patiently for the moment when he falls in the water and creates a false crises—and there is at least one getting-to-know-you conversation involving, of all things, the eating habits of gorillas that could have been done without. Look beyond these iffy particulars, however, and one will find a cleanly constructed story with engaging characters, a breezy romantic chemistry between Katie and Alex, and mounting stakes threatening to rip through the heart of lives just beginning to heal (all of the above is more than could be said for the last Nicholas Sparks pic, 2012's grindingly hokey, inert "The Lucky One"). Filmed on location in Southport, Terry Stacey's (2011's "Take Me Home Tonight") cinematography is ravishing, from the golden hues of twilight hour, to the tranquility of the seaside surroundings, to an encroaching aesthetic shadowiness as danger draws near.
Doing the bulk of the onscreen heavy lifting, Julianne Hough continues to impress even as she moves out of her comfort zone (singing and dancing) and into more diverse and demanding roles. With 2011's "Footloose," 2012's "Rock of Ages," and now "Safe Haven," Hough has displayed a bright and shining charisma that's close to impossible to resist. Her expert handling of Katie in all her various shades is consistently affecting, made all the more vital as her past and the actions that led her to flee her old life are revealed. No matter what she's done, Hough ensures that the viewer only want the best for her. As Alex, Josh Duhamel (2011's "New Year's Eve") turns in one of his better performances; although never truly bad, he does have the tendency to be bland as he repeats variations on the same role. By getting a little more meat to chew on and playing naturally off talented young performers Noah Lomax (2012's "Playing for Keeps") and newcomer Mimi Kirkland, as son Josh and daughter Lexie, Duhamel is ingratiating and relatable. A scene where he talks to Katie about losing his wife to cancer and whether or not it gets easier as time goes by is particularly poignant. Lending fine support, Cobie Smulders (2012's "The Avengers") plays Katie's new friend and confidante Jo, while David Lyons (2010's "Eat Pray Love") takes major advantage of his glazed-over eyes (kudos to the make-up people) as the hard-drinking Detective Tierney.
Culminating in a Fourth of July parade and a life-or-death struggle amidst fireworks over the harbor, "Safe Haven" comes close to mirroring 1997's "I Know What You Did Last Summer" of all things. Edge-of-your-seat-inducing is a description it is fair to say is rarely synonymous with Nicholas Sparks' name, but there you have it. More chancy still is what follows this climax, a big-time revelation that will be blatantly predictable to some and a shock to the system for others. Either way—and despite tiptoeing on the edge of being silly—this final whammy somehow works, tenderly closing on one chapter of the characters' lives as a new one begins. "Safe Haven" is far from free of the occasional maudlin flourish and on-the-nose chestnuts—"The great thing is, life is full of second chances," Jo tells Katie, apparently remembering a quote she once saw at the Hallmark store—but when it works, it does so with exceeding polish and heart. Katie and Alex are nice people and make a cute couple. They deserve each other.