There are three elements to any Nicholas Sparks story: death, tears and North Carolina. Safe Haven, the eighth Sparks film adaptation but only the third to be filmed entirely in the Tar Heel state, is set in the sleepy real-life village of Southport, situated at the confluence of the Cape Fear River, Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean.
In Safe Haven, we see depictions of the open-air restaurants along the marsh, nights spent gigging for fish and a re-creation of the town's renowned annual Fourth of July festival.
This idyllic setting becomes the hideaway for "Katie" (Julianne Hough), the name the perky blonde assumes while on the run from a trauma that's represented by flashbacks of a bloody knife and a prone victim. Since she's being pursued by Kevin (David Lyons), an alcoholic Boston detective, she's in need of a discreet hideout. Naturally, she rents a remote, dilapidated shack, which needs repairs that send Katie into town every day in search of supplies.
No bother—Katie is immediately embraced by the natives, particularly Alex (Josh Duhamel), a 30-something widower and father. Despite the "wanted" poster with Katie's face hanging in the local police station (this film isn't very kind to the Southport PD), and the fact that she attracts all manner of mayhem to town, Alex decides Katie is the one to replace his recently deceased wife and raise his two moppets.
In fairness, Duhamel and Hough have enough chemistry to carry this film, which is barely distinguishable from a Hallmark Channel Original Movie, through its many banal patches. Director Lasse Hallström—helming his second Sparks adaptation (Dear John)—competently captures the coastal tableaux, although his crosscuts to the detective's manic investigation back in faux-Boston are drab filler.
Still, while there's the proverbial death along the way, you nearly make it through Safe Haven without any tears ... until a denouement that's just as likely to prompt eye-rolling as it is to send sniffles echoing throughout the theater. Ultimately, the big beneficiary here is the Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce. The rest of Safe Haven plays it safe.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Women on the run."