A Walk to Remember can and will be known best as ‘The Mandy Moore Project,’ the first feature where the popular teen singer stars on the big screen. She is the focal point of the marketing, the reason that most kids will see the movie, and the one player to be under the microscope. Luckily for Moore, and the film, her flaws are few, as she slides easily into one of the more interesting teen roles in recent adolescent films, as the originality of her character, her well-metered performance, and director Adam Shankman’s lively delivery lift this movie above most of its counterparts.
The film may look like a relative to the Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle She’s All That (1999), but it’s more like a cousin to Robert Mulligan’s The Man in the Moon (1991). The story begins predictably enough: Landon (Shane West), a young teen sowing his oats through his high school years, is forced to take on charity work after orchestrating a stupid stunt that nearly paralyzes a kid. While mopping up hallways and tutoring youngsters, he comes across Jamie Sullivan (Moore), a level-headed duckling (not so ugly), with a good heart and religion at her core. If this were Prinze pap, Landon would spruce her up and show the world what it’s been missing. Instead, in this Karen Janszen adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel, Jamie stays true to herself, and the shy girl has a life-changing effect on the guy.
Although that’s a neat narrative twist on its own, Shankman (The Wedding Planner) takes careful patience to develop the relationship — first the couple are cynical combatants, then friends, then inseparable romantics, struck by true first love. The pace gives West and Moore the opportunity to grow into their roles and each other, and by the time he’s winning her over, helping her accomplish wonderful moments on her ‘life’s to-do list,’ the audience is really pulling for them to enjoy the wonder of their affections.
Speaking of an audience, the primarily female crowd audibly oooh’d and aaah’d through many parts of the film, marvelling at how two polite, well-meaning kids can fall for each other amidst single-parent environments and pressure from friends. Janszen deserves credit in skillfully spacing out certain conversations between the two, so when details are called back later in the film, as contrived as they may be, there’s an effective mood of surprise and romanticism. She also avoids hammering us over the head with the cuteness of it all, keeping a quiet tone that is appreciated.
The film (which, with its Carolina setting, can feel a little Dawson’s Creeky) does suffer a minor trip-up with a needlessly long musical number within the school play (Moore’s not much of a lip sync-er). And things get considerably worse with a final act copout that can only be blamed on Sparks’ sappy novel. Thankfully, however, Shankman, Janzsen, and the two leads keep the drippy plot point as unsentimental as possible, while still dealing to an audience that would like a good cry. There are many filmmakers out there that would, and will, handle such an egregious chance at tear-jerking with much less dignity.
But it’s that first half of the movie — the coming of age for both main characters — that shines, filling the screen with wistful optimism, puppy love, and some occasionally smart dialogue. It injects some peripheral entertainment by having West’s Landon try to earn the respect of Peter Coyote, playing Jamie’s Dad and the local minister (it’s good to see that Coyote has work other than just the voice guy at the Oscars). And the fact that Jamie is a good Christian while not being an unrealistic, religious zealot is a welcome component. We’ve probably seen too many films where the easiest thing for a teen to do when faced with faith is rebel against it.
While some of the clichés are there, A Walk to Remember has a freshness and sincerity that can wind its way into many viewers’ hearts, especially in a less hardened, post-World Trade Center universe. It has its faults, but it is a kind, unapologetic, sweetheart of a movie, and Mandy Moore leaves a positive impression. Teenage girls will love — repeat, love — this movie… and the rest of us should enjoy it too.
DVD viewers get — count ‘em — two commentary tracks to take on this Walk, one from Moore, West, and director Shankman, the other from Novelist Nicholas Sparks and screenwriter Karen Janszen. Obviously they’re as different as night and day — but they are both reasonably interesting (the whole film was shot on Dawson’s Creek sets, explaining that Creeky feeling), considering how straightforward the movie is on the whole.
Coyote eyes bunny.