When I first saw the trailer for Save Haven, I cringed at the thought of seeing another sappy, saccharine Nicholas Sparks film adaptation. Ever since A Walk to Remember and The Notebook, I hadn’t gotten a chance to see another one of Sparks’ film adaptations, aside from a small clip of Nights of Rodanthe, which I found to be rather dull and predictable. For those who are new to the romantic melodramas or haven’t watched as many movies as I have, Safe Haven may feel kind of exciting. Even for film veterans, Safe Haven may reinvigorate your inner teenage self and allow you to overlook some of the corny and clichéd dialogue. I experienced some cognitive dissonance as my inner thirteen-year-old enjoyed the Southern small town feel and the natural scenery, yet my critic self cringed at the sentimental plot and dialogue that evoked a Lifetime romance flick more than a strong feature film. For those who enjoy romantic dramas, Save Haven might be considered one of those films that are so bad that it’s somewhat compelling. This may sound like a generalization, but I think the romantic movie industry has caught what I call the Twilight disease—a lot of natural scenery, beautiful people, and emotional turbulence (with a sprinkle of supernatural forces). Sadly, these characteristics are privileged over a solid script with a coherent narrative, interesting characters, and witty and original dialogue.
We first see Katie (Julianne Hough) fleeing a violent crime scene. With the help of her kind neighbor she catches the next bus out of Boston to a small southern town in North Carolina, where she rents a small cottage in the forest. She becomes acquainted with the owner of the General Store, Alex (Josh Duhamel), and his two children, Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and Josh (Noah Lomax). Katie also befriends a friendly young woman named Jo (Colbie Smulders). Alex, a widower, finds himself increasingly attracted to the mysterious and quiet Katie. This romance would be so much more simple and straightforward if Katie wasn’t a wanted woman, being chased by a very aggressive detective, Kevin Tierney (David Lyons).
The film’s transitions felt choppy and rushed, especially between Katie’s current life in the small town and the night of the crime. At the some points of the movie, this type of transition felt appropriate because it illustrates how she still feels haunted by her past life. Still, the frequent change in the pace of the film may throw off some viewers. At one moment Katie will be tossing awkward flirty liners with Alex from the General Store, and another scene will jump to Tierney vengefully screening the security cameras. It just adds to the confused and clunky feel of the film–is Save Haven a romance or a thriller? Or does it fail to do justice to both genres?
Moreover, the growing relationship between Katie and Alex did not feel as convincing or compelling as it should have been–just one day, Alex asks to give her a ride, and the next day, he delivers a bike to her house in the middle of the night. From observing the scenes, I couldn’t pinpoint any specific events or memorable conversations that ultimately contributed to any sort of mutual attraction. In especially the serious and melodramatic scenes, the leading actor and actress often failed to properly time their lines, which underscored the wooden and cliched nature of the script.
One thing I have learned from watching many romantic films is that poorly written dialogues between lovebirds often include these key phrases—“I didn’t mean to hurt you” and “I was very stupid back then.” The sentimental and melodramatic love scenes do not necessarily lead to any sort of sincere development of narrative and characters but add to the overall corniness and lack of originality. While most Nicholas Sparks adaptations include a clichéd plot, the inclusion of a forced plot twist (that will have you going—Oh really? Wait, I saw that coming) and wooden delivery of not so great dialogue might embarrass and even offend some viewers.
I often feel that Sparks’ books and film adaptations are most compelling when they allow us to empathize with the characters, but I personally didn’t see much reason to empathize with Katie, aside from the fact that she was escaping an abusive relationship. We know absolutely nothing about her story, other than the fact that she chose the wrong man to marry. Alex, on the other hand, is supposed to be sweet because he appears to be a good dad and is trying to play mom and dad after his wife’s death. Aside from those facts, we don’t know too much about him either. The poor characterization alone knocks this film way below previous Sparks adaptations like The Notebook and A Walk to Remember.
But I will say that the cinematography of the lakeside town and the natural setting was truly charming. Honestly, in the canoeing scene, the beauty of the lake spoke a million times more wonders than any sappy conversation between the lovebirds. The film appeals to the popular imagination of what it might be like to live in a Southern town—full of hospitality, a strong community, and beautiful beaches and forests. Aside from constituting an escapist vehicle of Southern hospitality and whirlwind romance, Safe Haven has very little value in terms of building narrative, character, and script.