Warners faces a unique marketing challenge in promoting “A Walk to Remember,” a glossy teen-weepie romance that often plays like an inspirational indie skewed toward Christian niche market. Adapted from bestseller by Nicholas Sparks (“Message in a Bottle”), pic deals with matters of faith, belief and redemption more seriously — and, at times, more compellingly — than most Hollywood products, which might prove a selling point with devoutly religious ticketbuyers (provided, of course, they’re willing to overlook mild vulgarities in dialogue). The problem is, how do you reach those folks without branding drama as something too goodie-goodie for mainstream auds? Word of mouth will help, as will marquee allure of the femme lead, pop star Mandy Moore. But “Walk” likely won’t begin to hit its stride until it reaches homevid.
Transported from the novel’s 1950s setting to the mid-’90s, Karen Janszen’s screenplay spins a familiar first-love yarn in the port town of Beaufort, N.C. Landon Carter (Shane West of “Get Over It” and TV’s “Once and Again”) is introduced as a moody, reckless young hunk who cares little about anything other than his status as a member of the local high school’s in-crowd. When he and his buddies inadvertently cause a classmate’s injury during an initiation ritual, Carter takes full blame for the incident, fully expecting to be expelled.
But the school principal devises a different — and, in Carter’s view, much worse — punishment. In order to teach the budding delinquent a few lessons in humility and selflessness, he orders Carter to tutor younger students at a nearby school and to take a lead role in the drama club’s spring play. But such activities, Carter complains, usually are reserved for losers, nerds and impossibly wholesome do-gooders like Jamie Sullivan (Moore), the plain-dressed and self-possessed daughter of the town’s Baptist minister (Peter Coyote, effectively cast against type).
Initially too cool to care, Carter doesn’t take his new responsibilities seriously until the good-hearted but blunt-spoken Jamie more or less shames him into doing so. As they rehearse together, they slowly overcome their highly unfavorable first impressions of each other. One thing leads to another, and soon Carter is willing to risk his in-crowd status by asking Jamie to dinner. Jamie’s father warns that “boys like Carter have certain expectations,” and disapproves of her daughter’s budding romance. As it turns out, however, his objections aren’t based entirely on Carter’s bad reputation.
The courtship progresses altogether too sweetly and innocently for any veteran moviegoer not to suspect that, sooner or later, a dark cloud will descend. Sure enough, a few portentous hints are dropped at pic’s midway point. Then, at roughly the three-quarter mark, “Walk” spills the beans and signals an impending, inevitable tragedy. But Jamie’s faith remains strong, Carter’s love remains true — and even Jamie’s father comes around to agreeing that the young couple just might manage to pull off a miracle.
Nothing that happens in “A Walk to Remember” can be described as surprising, and very little of it feels fresh. Supporting characters — including Carter’s divorced mother, played by an unattractively brunette Daryl Hannah — are sketchy and, worse, prone to arbitrary mood swings. Director Adam Shankman doesn’t have quite enough faith in his material to resist a few overly insistent yanks on the heartstrings.
Still, every new generation needs its own love stories — or, to be more specific, its own “Love Story” — and the unabashedly retro “A Walk to Remember” may score a significant emotional impact with target aud of teens and adolescents.
As Carter, Shane West makes an appealingly persuasive transition from embittered cynic to earnest romantic. Moore, looking a bit like Phoebe Cates’ kid sister, does a fine job of conveying Jamie’s strong religious convictions as one of many admirable elements in young woman’s personality. (Not surprisingly, she’s a terrific vocalist in school play.) As lead characters discuss their faith — or, in Carter’s case, the lack thereof — actors are able to make those conversations sound perfectly natural, enabling pic to avoid any trace of overt preachiness.
Except for some needlessly attention-grabbing hand-held lensing in early scenes, production values are adequate. Pacing drags in second half, and pic could easily lose about 10 minutes.