A Walk to Remember (2002)

2002, Warner Bros. Directed by Adam Shankman. Mandy Moore, Shane West, Daryl Hannah, Peter Coyote.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +3
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Teen hooliganism; sporadic, sometimes crude sexual references; references to teen drinking; religious questioning; typical parent-teen issues; a momentary fisticuff; an assumed back-story divorce.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Like Jamie (teen pop singer Mandy Moore) in the bittersweet, chastely romantic teen movie A Walk to Remember, I carried a Bible with me in high school, and didn’t mind being mocked for my faith. I wasn’t studious like she was, but I was a bookworm and a geek and enjoyed class participation, which is more or less equivalent to being studious in terms of peer opinion. I can appreciate this movie’s positive depiction of a self-possessed, goody-two-shoes high-school outcast.

Like its heroine Jamie, A Walk to Remember is pious, wholesome, and eminently open to mockery and derision. Also like its heroine, it doesn’t care what people think of it. I approve of this, and I think young people who value their faith like Jamie does will enjoy and perhaps even be edified by this movie, based on the 1999 novel by Message in a Bottle author Nicholas Sparks.

How the Landon Carters of the world will feel about it, I have no idea. Landon (Shane West of TV’s “Once and Again”) is popular and cool, and thinks of himself as a rebel, though the real rebel in the film is obviously Jamie. Some critics have derided Landon and his buddies as mere faux toughs, but I’ve a suspicion that a lot of high school toughs are faux, and you could pick worse places to look for them than this movie’s small-town Beaufort, NC setting.

Jamie has also come under critical fire for being too perfect, too bland, too boring to be believed. The critics, most of whom are grown-ups, should know better: How many of us (I speak as an adult to other adults) were really interesting in high school? How many of us had a clue what “interesting” meant? Jamie is into astronomy and drama club, she volunteers as a tutor, and she’s in the church choir. Granted, it might be nice to see her reading a book for fun instead of just plowing through her teachers’ reading lists, but if she were your daughter, wouldn’t you be reasonably satisfied with her progress to date? I’ll take good in a teenager, and work on interesting in the long haul.

Of course, whether Jamie is a good kid is one question; whether she and Landon make good central characters in a motion picture is another. I must report that, for me at least, their story works only sporadically, with some plodding in between. Perhaps I’m too old for A Walk to Remember; but then I believe that the best youth-oriented stories are those that can also be enjoyed by people in their thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond. Yet, having said that, there may also be a place for lesser stories that speak to one generation more than to another. A Walk to Remember is a plausible case in point.

Jamie is a sort of girl I’d like to see more of in teen movies, one who isn’t obsessed with clothes, boys, or popularity, who doesn’t suffer from low self-esteem, body-image problems, or depression. When she tells a boy she likes that she’s unseducible, she means it — and he knows it.

Unlike the teen-movie stereotype lampooned on Not Another Teen Movie posters as the “pretty ugly girl” — i.e., the girl who’s meant to seem unattractive behind a bad wardrobe and hairdo until a makeover reveals her for the babe she is — Jamie isn’t pretty-ugly, just unconcerned with appearances. And she stays that way: With the exception of a brief (and unnecessary) transformation into a glamorous torch singer for a school play (a scene that, like the church choir bit, allows Moore to strut her stuff as a singer), Jamie retains her mousy bangs and dowdy sweaters throughout the film.

Landon, despite his bad attitude and faux bad friends, isn’t really a bad kid, just disaffected and adrift. He’s young enough and dumb enough to be involved in a dangerous stunt that leaves another boy seriously injured, but he’s also the only one who cares enough about the injured boy not to flee as soon as they’re discovered, so of course he’s the one who gets caught. His principal goes in for creative sentencing, which means Landon winds up with forced tutoring and drama-club participation — both of which, of course, involve seeing more of Jamie than he ever wanted to.

Here the movie turns to familiar “opposites attract” ploys that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. I can understand Landon’s reluctance to humiliate himself in the school play by not knowing his lines, but I didn’t buy the way he goes to Jamie for help. This is a crucial plot point, and needed to work better.

But as friendship begins to creep over the two young people, there are genuinely touching moments, including a couple in which Landon helps fulfill items on Jamie’s sometimes Quixotic “to-do” list. And I liked the uncomfortable scenes with Jamie’s disapproving preacher-father (Peter Coyote of Erin Brockovich) squaring off against Landon, who doesn’t care about the preacher’s approval but chafes at being judged or dismissed by him.

Incidentally, Jamie’s father is one of the few halfway nuanced characters in the film: a rather stern, judgmental Fundamentalist sort who’s nevertheless human enough to respond to an unexpected appeal for open-mindedness and suspension of judgment. Daryl Hannah has less to do as Landon’s divorced mother; still, the filmmakers deserve some kind of credit for not even trying to pair her up with Jamie’s father.

The two leads each carry their parts effectively, and generate reasonable chemistry most of the time. As Landon, Shane West has the trickier task of playing a guy who’s a jerk for no discernible reason yet is meant to be sympathetic at the same time, and he pulls it off. Mandy Moore, last seen in The Princess Diaries, is completely convincing as the squeaky-clean good girl (the “anti-Britney,” she’s been called) who nevertheless would like to get a tattoo and, in a moment both innocent and erotic, bares her shoulder for Landon to apply one (the temporary kind).

Despite resistance from Jamie’s father and Landon’s friends, their relationship progresses swimmingly — too swimmingly. Obviously, there must be some as-yet-unrevealed plot complication looming. There is, and whether or not you buy into it will determine how you feel about the movie as a whole.

Dramatically, it’s easy to criticize this development and what follows; yet, in spite of glaring difficulties, the theme of one individual’s sufferings having a redemptive effect on another still retains some power. (It’s particularly interesting to see this idea, more characteristic of Catholic spirituality than of Protestant, in this Bible-belt conversion story.)

The film is also vulnerable to criticism on other fronts. There’s a patently token black character (another stereotype exposed by the Not Another Teen Movie poster) who’s a mugging, trash-talking clown. At times, too, the story seems to vacillate uncomfortably between its original 1950s setting in the book and the ostensibly modern setting in the film.

Still, on balance, the pluses outweigh the minuses. A Walk to Remember is not a great movie, but it’s a worthwhile one, especially for its target audience. The themes it deals with certainly deserve a more thoughtful and nuanced treatment, but the fact that they’ve been dealt with at all in a major studio release is worthy of note. I wish this movie every success; if it is successful, there will be others like it, and perhaps some of them will match their moral and spiritual aspirations with greater artistic merit.

Tags: Drama, Religious Themes, Romance

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