MOVIE REVIEW: The Best of Me
October 23, 2014
Nicholas Sparks. At the mere mention of his name, images of love, romance, peaceful serenity, his beloved Carolina coastline, among others, all vividly spring to mind. So does the idea of second chances and purity of the heart and character. Nicholas Sparks is a storyteller who grabs the heart, touches the soul and evokes powerful emotions within each of us who read his books or see film adaptations of them. And Nicholas Sparks is synonymous with tears and tissues. Now, as the ninth adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks bestseller, THE BEST OF ME proves to be the best Sparks adaptation since "The Notebook" and the best love story of the year.
Dawson Cole is a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. But unlike his father and brothers, he has a good heart, is a good person and wants to break away from the criminal ways of the "family business". Dawson also suffers severe physical abuse at the hands of his father who believes him to be worthless and good for nothing. Handsome and good looking, yet extremely shy, it's easy to understand why he catches the eye of Amanda Collier. A girl from the monied right side of the tracks, Amanda is confident, independent, vocal in her opinions and views and has her life planned out with meticulous detail, right down to the names of future children. Amanda also always gets what she wants and she wants Dawson.
Thanks to a little sweet sneakiness, Amanda gets Dawson's attention and his heart, but not without facing seemingly insurmountable odds along the way. Her family disapproves of him. His family disapproves of her. But then there's Tuck. Former military, local mechanic, Tuck is recently widowed. Still puttering in his wife's beloved garden tending her flowers with all the love possible, it's easy to see that she was the love of Tuck's life and her passing has left a vast emptiness in his heart. It's because of their love that Tuck firmly believes in love, true love.
After running away from home after a violent incident at the hands of his father, Dawson takes refuge in Tuck's garage. It doesn't take long before both Dawson and Tuck get a second chance, with each filling an emptiness in the other. Tuck becomes the father Dawson should have had and always wanted while Dawson the son that now fills the loneliness of Tuck's life. And Tuck believes in the love between Amanda and Dawson.
But the course of true love never does run smooth and tragedy strikes for Dawson and Amanda, ripping them apart for 20 years. Amanda has gone on to marry and has a college-aged son. Dawson works on oil rigs in the Gulf. They have never spoken in all these years; in fact, neither even knows if the other is even alive. But on Tuck's death, the two are reunited thanks to Tuck's foresight and wisdom that time heals all wounds; and that Amanda and Dawson still belong together. Is their love still there? Can they rekindle the magic that once was? Should they? Or will Fate play yet another unseen hand?
As the adult Amanda and Dawson, Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden are pure magic. As the young Amanda and Dawson, Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey are incandescent and melt even the coldest and most cynical heart with a grounded, naturalness to them. While the physical similarities between the generational couples are believable, it is the emotional level of performances that solidify Monaghan and Liberato, Marsden and Bracey. Never in the same scenes together, each still manages to capture the essence of performance and emotion of the other generation, creating a seamless mesh that transcends time. It's a testament to all four actors and particularly Liberato and Bracey who set the tone and carry the bulk of screen time with establishing the story. If Liberato and Bracey don't work together, don't click, have no chemistry, not only doesn't the story work but the characters of Amanda and Dawson fall flat and waste anything that Monaghan and Marsden might do. A tricky balancing act, but the performances are so solid, so rooted in honest emotion and obvious chemistry that the love soars. Notable is that Bracey was ultimately cast after testing with Liberato who, on questioning by director Hoffman, declared Bracey "the best kisser." (It's Liberato's first love scenes on film, she may as well play opposite the best!)
Turning to each performance individually, each brings something distinctive to their role. Liana Liberato is luminous. The camera loves her. Liberato has a spunky freshness that has matured over the past few years as she finds her performance footing. Watching her move through a variety of performances in films like "Trust", "Trespass" and "erased", Liberato comes into her own in THE BEST OF ME with her first love story and love scenes, first on-screen kiss, all set against some powerful dramatic gravitas. Equally notable is Luke Bracey. We recently saw him tacitly stoic opposite Pierce Brosnan in "The November Man" but here as Dawson, Bracey finds a youthful insecurity that grows into confident strength melded with a playfulness when going toe-to-toe with Liberato. Without disclosing some of the plot twists of THE BEST OF ME, suffice to say that James Marsden is still every woman's Prince Charming, and with Michelle Monaghan's Amanda that is no different. And as for Monaghan, she brings an emotional arc to Amanda that shows character growth in a minimal amount of time while adding touchstones of youthful fun that are welcoming and mirroring the tone of Liberato.
A real gift to THE BEST OF ME is Gerald McRaney. Not only is McRaney's performance as Tuck key to propelling the story and setting the defining tone for love and integrity, but McRaney makes Tuck (like McRaney himself) the very definition of "salt of the earth"; and not just in THE BEST OF ME, but among all of Sparks' characters and books. Working only in scenes opposite leads Liberato and Bracey, there is an onscreen paternal/grandfatherly mentorship and love that radiates. These three together are like watching a beautiful ballet of ethereal emotion.
Truly a love story on so many levels as opposed to just being filled with romance or star-crossed lovers, THE BEST OF ME encompasses multiple layers and colors of love - young love, innocent love, parent-child love, love of a friend, surrogate parent love, mature love, love of a lifetime love, eternal love. I loved the book, but the film surpasses the printed word thanks to the vision of director Michael Hoffman and screenwriters Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe.
Capitalizing on Sparks' gift for transcending time with everlasting love, Hoffman not only embraces the idea of an eternal love, but flips the printed word on its ear and focuses on the origins of that love through the young Amanda and Dawson. Where the book spends much of its pages on the adult Amanda and Dawson and their regrets and reminiscences, Hoffman has us fall in love with the young high-school Amanda and Dawson and their love story. We watch it unfold, thus giving more gravitas to the "20 years later" aspect of the story. The youthful story also provides a foundation for the different types of love to which Amanda and Dawson are exposed, adding depth to the adult personas. Thanks to this flipped structure and the detailed insight into youthful dreams, familial influences and the dreams of what is yet to come, we are able to embrace these as yet unjaded characters and even drift back in time to our own youthful ebullience and truly celebrate the idea of "second chances". Seminal dialogue from the book is also faithfully incorporated into the script.
Significant is also a shift in visual tone as Hoffman moves the setting of the film from North Carolina, opening a wealth of visual wonders, each more beauteous than the last. Calling on cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, together the two create a naturalistic look. Shooting digitally but widescreen with anamorphic lenses, the framing of each shot is classic. Electing to shoot on sticks as opposed to a lot of hand-held camera work, Hoffman and Stapleton make the most of the shallow depth of field created with the anamorphic lenses for a lovely separation of background and foreground. Keeping a lightness to the lensing and using to its best advantage natural lighting that captures the play of sun off a muddy creek or twinkling through low hanging Spanish Moss, Hoffman also uses sun flares to create some beautiful visual effects, particularly in dreamlike sequences with Liberato. Beautiful simplicity.
Meeting the challenge of creating two distinct time periods, the one constant thread is Tuck's garden at Vandemeer cottage. Again reteaming for the fifth time with production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein, the cottage design, as well as Tuck's main house, is timeless, ageless, classic homespun Southern romance. Finding an isolated magical location that had everything the story called for proved challenging but ultimately rewarding with the still-Hurricane Katrina damaged- cottage complete with lake, dock and yard that von Brandenstein could tailor to the love story. With the garden representing the cycle of life with rebirth, renewal, growth and beauty, Hoffman creates a sense of time almost standing still capturing the serenity and tranquility of the private lake, a small dock, a pantheon of floral delights (and make note of the use of red as it bears significance in the film) and those moss covered tress. Breathtakingly exquisite.
Adding the final brush strokes is a score by Aaron Zigman. With the same delicacy we see in Stapleton's cinematography, so Zigman provides with his score. The scoring feels like love. The blend of sunlight, the garden, flowers, a pond all lensed so lightly and fluidly, looks like love. Also capturing the spirit of the film is an end credits song by Lady Antebellum, their first song written specifically for a film.
Five boxes of tissues minimum, the waterworks will flow with THE BEST OF ME. The best Nicholas Sparks adaptation to date. The best love story of the year. THE BEST OF ME will bring out the best in you.
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Written by Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Liana Liberato, Luke Bracey, Gerald