This is not a typical Nicholas Sparks adaptation.
Yes, this film is cheesy, this film's corny, this film's cliché. But to judge this film based on that alone is to completely ignore the context and conventions of its genre. It's not a ground- breaking film by any means, but it is ground-breaking if we're talking about Romances, specifically Sparks adaptations.
Anyone complaining about the typical formula (i.e., girl meets boy, girl's family doesn't like boy's family, the two lovers persevere, etc.) clearly hasn't seen this movie. Amanda (the female protagonist)'s father does fall into the typical mold of a disapproving, upper-class father who wants the boyfriend out of the picture so his daughter can have a bright future. But unlike a slew of other Romances (and even Sparks' own adaptations), he's in the film for a very, very brief amount of time. In fact, I'd go so far as to say he's not at all crucial to the film. If anything, his part was intended to play to the demographic and nothing else, which while regrettable, should say something about how this film stands up on its own without relying on clichés
I noted that film deals with real-life issues. We see issues of class, family, and self-esteem illustrated much better than most Sparks adaptations I've seen. Sean Bridgers knocks it out of the park with his downright of patriarch and sociopath Tommy Cole, father of protagonist Dawson Cole. The Cole clan in particular - a gang of drug-dealing(?), abusive, sickos really deserving of the title "white trash" - brings this film to life. They represent a segment of society that we rarely ever get to see on screen. This film, unlike some of Sparks' other works, does not cast a glowing light on the White South, and instead we get to the gritty, shameful parts that actually made me forget what movie I was watching. On top of all that, we get to see the consequences of trying to break away from the most perverted "families" that are present in every-day life. We get to see how that cycle of anger, shame, and ostracism fuels the dirty (and violent) blood feuds that still exist in the underbelly of this country. Luke Bracey shows us what it's like for a young person dealing with this life, to have their ambitions silenced, and the true pain that comes with leaving one's family.
Above all, this film speaks to regret. (Spoilers ahead) All the tragedies and hardships that meet the protagonists, unlike previous Sparks adaptations, actually don't pull them together. We do see some of that smarmy "Life's hard but we still love each other anyway" stuff throughout the film, but for once we get to see that narrative broken. Dawson's and Amanda's relationship gets tested, and for a while it goes on, but ultimately Dawson's predicament proves too dark for their relationship to hold out. It seems cliché for him to cut if off while in jail, but isn't that what we saw in The Hurricane (1999) and other great films? This is a film about love, and the sacrifice that Dawson makes is really believable considering that. After taking separate paths, both characters have to deal with that regret and questions of "what if?"
The issue of casting is one that shouldn't be ignored, but one that can't rightly be criticized too much in the case of Marsden. The late Paul Walker, the original choice for Adult Dawson, would have bared more resemblance to Bracey, but we can't fault Marsden or anyone working on this film for having to deal with that circumstance. Marsden pulls it off in the end. Does he do it as well as Walker would have? We may never know, and it's pretty disrespectful to even ask the question, as many reviewers are doing. This film is what it is.
The end (spoilers ahead) really tripped me up. Yes, it's so cliché that I couldn't believe it for a minute, but this film is about coincidences and fate, so after considering that, it's not fair to judge it based on statistics. This is a realm that crosses from the sordid into the miraculous. But really - and this is something I didn't even notice until after walking out of the theater - what really tested the limits of this genre was that this wasn't a happy ending. It was a bittersweet and somewhat cheesy ending, sure, but it wasn't happy. They don't end up together. The last notes are in a way quite comforting, but unresolved. Maybe some people don't like that, but I sure did. What happens to Amanda's son? Yes, he lives, but how does he feel about his parents' divorce? Did they even divorce? What happens to Aaron? And, by the way, Robby Rasmussen deserves a damned Oscar for playing two characters so well. What about Amanda? We aren't sure if she ever really moves on. What are her regrets? Does she have any regrets left at all, or maybe a whole new set of regrets?
This film takes some getting used to and some further consideration beyond what's happening on the surface. On the surface, it's just another Romance, but it takes a little more thought. For being so panned for its formulaic nature, this film challenged a lot conventions not only followed by Sparks, but by the whole genre of Romance. It's interesting, to say the very least, and is well worth the watch.
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