A young woman on the run from a violent past looks to get a fresh start in “Safe Haven,” although dramatically speaking, there’s nothing particularly fresh about her decision to fall for an attractive widower with two cute kids against some picturesque oceanfront scenery. Familiarity, of course, is an expectation and a virtue for fans of the genial romantic hokum popularized by novelist Nicholas Sparks, and insofar as this Lasse Hallstrom-directed adaptation proves rather livelier and less drippy than last year’s “The Lucky One,” distaff audiences should respond favorably enough.
Fleeing the scene of a crime that will only come into focus later, desperate Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough) boards a bus and gets off in Southport, a small town on the North Carolina coast. Hoping to settle down and live in quiet isolation, she gets a job as a waitress, rents a ramshackle woodland cabin and tentatively bonds with a friendly neighbor (Cobie Smulders), though not before locking eyes with Alex (Josh Duhamel), the handsome proprietor of the local general store.
Still mourning the loss of his wife and doing his best to raise his sensitive, sullen son (Noah Lomax) and bright, button-cute daughter (Mimi Kirkland), Alex is clearly the healing Katie needs, and vice versa. Their romance develops with a slow, pleasing predictability — a random act of kindness here, an impromptu beach trip there — ushered along by the instrumental caresses of Deborah Lurie’s score and the eye-catching vistas of Terry Stacey’s widescreen photography.
This is Hallstrom’s second Sparks adaptation after 2010’s “Dear John” (though he’s been busy in the interim with “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” and “The Hypnotist”), and his gentle, impersonal touch makes him an ideal interpreter of this brand of soothingly banal mass-market fiction. “Safe Haven” boasts more of a suspense-thriller orientation than the author’s prior work, something Hallstrom accentuates here by repeatedly cutting away to a creepy cop (David Lyons) who seems just a bit too determined to track Katie down.
The effect of watching the film is thus not unlike snuggling up with a warm blanket that keeps getting ripped away just before tiredness sets in. Or perhaps it’s the proverbial rug getting pulled out from under the viewer; the script by Dana Stevens (“Life or Something Like It,” “City of Angels”) turns out to have a few semi-surprises in store, allowing Hallstrom to raise a few third-act goosebumps en route to a fiery, overwrought climax.
In all other respects, “Safe Haven” offers an unsurprising but not unsatisfying tour through recognizable Sparkville terrain. Rest assured the leads will get caught in a rainstorm, all the better to ease them out of their soaking garments. Katie, presumably trying to keep a low profile, will for some reason opt for the most conspicuous blonde dye job possible. Children’s lives will be threatened at narratively opportune moments. Horrible traumas will be revealed as the workings of a grand cosmic design, pushing the story to the sort of maudlin extremes that typically separate the weepers from the gigglers in the audience.
Rather less taxing than her musical showcases “Rock of Ages” and “Footloose,” this isn’t the picture that will enable Hough to establish herself as more than a pretty face, though she plays vulnerable well enough and achieves a modestly affecting rapport with Duhamel’s sensitive hunk. Special mention must be made of Kirkland, an 8-year-old natural who turns the simple act of bagging groceries into perhaps the movie’s most authentic instance of human behavior.