A Walk to Remember
Screenplay : Karen Jaszen (based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Shane West (Landon Carter), Mandy Moore (Jamie Sullivan), Peter Coyote (Rev. Sullivan), Al Thompson (Eric), Daryl Hannah (Cynthia Carter), Lauren German (Belinda), Clayne Crawford (Dean), Paz de la Huerta (Tracie), Jonathan Parks Jordan (Walker), Matt Lutz (Clay Gephardt)
Having played the mean, popular cheerleader who makes life difficult for the awkward heroine in last summer's The Princess Diaries (2001), pop singer Mandy Moore now adds the opposite pole of the high school social spectrum to her resume with her role as Jamie Sullivan, a plain-Jane, goody-two-shoes preacher's daughter in A Walk to Remember.
Like The Princess Diaries, A Walk to Remember is hopelessly and willfully square, yet, for what it is and what it aspires to be, it's not at all bad. It exchanges Princess's comedic tone for one of solemn drama, as it plays out the tragic story of perfect, redemptive adolescent love, the kind that only exists in fiction—but, then again, that is one of the primary reasons for going to the movies, and to attack the film because it celebrates a particular ideal is pandering to the misguided notion that cynicism and irony are the only filters through which the world can be viewed.
Shane West (Once and Again) stars as Landon Carter, a bad-boy member of the popular high school clique in a small North Carolina town who finds himself in trouble after a prank goes wrong and lands a kid in the hospital. As part of his punishment, Landon has to tutor disadvantaged kids on the weekends and take a role in the school play. This puts him firmly in Jamie's world, who tutors of her own free will and finds excitement in acting. To Shane, it's just lame, but as he goes through the motions to serve his sentence, he begins to find that, against expectation, he actually enjoys spending time with Jamie.
Jamie is mocked by her peers because she doesn't use make-up, keeps her straight hair constantly pulled back in a ponytail, and wears an endless procession of frumpy dresses that are always adorned with the same green sweater. She does everything wrong in terms of popularity—she's into astronomy, she reads too much, and, worst of all, she doesn't hide her faith in God and her Christian beliefs. Yet, despite her social-outcast status, Jamie is a person of incredible self-reliance and esteem, almost impossibly sure of herself for a high school senior. With only a few exceptions, insults and jeers roll of her back because she is comfortable with her place in the world and her outlook on life.
As these things go, Landon ends up doing the last thing he ever expected: He falls in love with Jamie. And, as this represents yet another version of the Romeo & Juliet-as-filtered-through-John Hughes depiction of star-crossed lovers from different adolescent social strata, this causes all sorts of problems. Landon's friends don't understand what he sees in Jamie, and Jamie's father, Reverend Sullivan (Peter Coyote), doesn't like the idea of his virginal daughter mixing with "that kind of boy." As a result, Landon finds himself the social outcast, but he is so genuinely in love with Jamie that he doesn't care. As he tells his mother (Daryl Hannah) at one point, he loves Jamie because she makes him want to be a better person, and that becomes the lynchpin of their romance: It's a redemptive love, as Jamie redeems Landon's self-absorbed bad-boy ways and Landon becomes the one person besides her father to stay by Jamie's side, even in the face of tragedy.
Guileless and earnest as it is, A Walk to Remember is a love-it or hate-it affair—either you let yourself get pulled into its sentimental journey or you resist it as silly pap. For those who fall in the latter category, at least consider the film's strengths. It does, after all, paint a realistic portrait of the trials and tribulations of high school, and all the pain and exuberance that comes with it. It also offers multifaceted adolescent characters who have heart and depth, something that is all too rare when the movies about teenagers immediately bring to mind gross-out images of experimental sex with pies gone awry. And those characters are brought to life by two very good young actors in Shane West and Mandy Moore.
Moore, in her first starring role, is particularly impressive, as she goes through a range of emotions, many of which are captured in the kind of delicate close-ups that always betray mediocre acting. Some of the lines she has to say border on outright treacle ("You're my angel"), but she delivers them in such a way as to suggest that her character recognizes them as such, hence the small smiles and little laughs that follow. In today's media-saturated world, does it not make sense that teenage lovers, at least in some small ways, see themselves as playing out the roles they've seen on TV and in movies?
But, lest I sound like I'm fully defending the film, there are problems, none of which are, however, fatal. Plotwise, we gradually discover that Jamie is hiding a "big secret" from Shane, and even some of those who will have enjoyed the film up until the moment of revelation will find this calculated plot development hard to swallow.
Director Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner) is largely unimaginative in his staging and direction, and he allows the film to come to a dead stop halfway through during a play in which Jamie has a solo number that he essentially turns into a Mandy Moore music video. It's a problem not only because it ruptures the flow of the narrative, but because it puts too much emphasis on Mandy Moore the pop singer, rather than Mandy Moore the actress who had, up until that point, disappeared into a believable character. Granted, this is intended to be the moment in the film when Landon truly sees Jamie as "beautiful," but it's too much.
The same goes for some of the dialogue by screenwriter Karen Jaszen, working from the novel by Nicholas Sparks (Message in a Bottle). Sparks was smart enough to construct his novel around the reminiscence of an older man looking back to his first true love in the late 1950s. The film, set in the present time, doesn't have the excuse of nostalgia for its sappier moments. Of course, this also means that it doesn't have the assumption of a more rigorous '50s morality to explain its protagonists' chastity when it comes to avoiding premarital sex.
The lack-of-sex issue has been one of the spots where some wrongheaded critics have gone most astray, as if the idea of two teenagers in love not jumping into the sack (or the backseat) is a concept out of a science-fiction movie. It's a curious example of critics mistaking the world of movies—where virtually all teenagers have not only active sex lives, but incredibly adventurous ones, as well—and reality where many don't (most recent surveys have determined that roughly 50% of 17-year-olds have never had sex). I find it amazing that more critics haven't recognized the positive benefits of the portrayal of a young woman who has made a decision about her sexuality and sticks with it, especially since it cuts across the grain of the shallow, horny movie teen cliche.
In the end, one's enjoyment of A Walk to Remember will rely almost entirely on his or her disposition before the projector starts (and, judging by most critical responses to it, a lot of people were primed for the negative). Cynics will hate it because it's innocent, but romantics will find much to cry about. As far as sentimental pap goes, you could do a lot worse.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick