The only right weekend out of the year to watch a movie like this is the weekend of Valentine’s Day.* I like movies with purely romantic plots at least three times more when I see them on a date with my fiancée, and when I know she wants to watch them. If I saw this movie without Vicky, there’s a good chance I would have turned it off after the first time Cobie Smulders’s character appeared onscreen. But I saw it in theaters with Vicky, so it remained on, and I enjoyed it. The same thing happened last year when we saw The Vow on Valentine’s Day, but I’m convinced that was a far better movie.
Julianne Hough plays a woman named Katie whom we meet while she flees her home. At first we don’t know why, though we’re given flashes of Katie with a knife, bloody clothes, and a man lying on the floor. It won’t ruin anything if I tell you that Katie is fleeing an abusive relationship, because the trailers have implied as much. Similarly, I’m not ruining anything by telling you that she ends up considering a romantic relationship with Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), a single dad she meets in the idyllic seaside town of Southport, North Carolina. Alex’s wife died of cancer a few years back. Katie is reluctant at first, naturally; leaving the abuser doesn’t make the years of abuse disappear.
The movie perhaps allows Katie to give into Alex’s charms too easily. She just left an abusive relationship; it doesn’t seem plausible that she would trust a strange man so quickly. Of course, I’ve admittedly never been in that situation. I also struggled with her pursuing a relationship with Alex while she was still married. Alex is obviously the better man for her, but marriage is sacred; even if I believe it’s right to leave your husband because of abuse, I’d maintain that you should honor marriage itself by avoiding romantic relationships until the marriage is annulled. But maybe I’m thinking too much. This movie obviously isn’t too worried about my worldview.
It’s easy to forgive Safe Haven its flaws (most of them, at least- there’s one that tipped the scale for me), because the romance between Katie and Alex is so enjoyable. Julianne Hough is more likable in other movies, but she works as a woman who has been hurt and is now hesitant to give her heart to another man. As Alex, Josh Duhamel excels at being a real nice guy; there’s not really much nuance to his character, but Duhamel makes a real person out of him anyway. Every movie needs a villain, and David Lyons is sufficiently villainous as the tenacious cop who is trying to find Alex.
But the real stars of the movie are Alex’s kids. Noah Lomax as Alex’s son, Josh, is a preteen boy who feels the loss of his mother tangibly and is suspicious of Katie from the beginning. Alex’s daughter is played by Lexie Wheatley as an absolutely adorable angel who is probably too perfect, but whatever. The kids are the catalyst for Katie’s and Alex’s burgeoning relationship, and they lend believability to the romance.
If the kids are the real stars, then Cobie Smulders’s Jo is the real villain. Cobie Smulders is fantastic on How I Met Your Mother, but her character here is woefully written. She functions as Katie’s new bestie in Southport, but she’s awkward during the whole movie for unexplained reasons. When those reasons are explained at the end in a terrible twist, the movie loses all credibility. Domestic abuse is too important of a topic to sell it short with ridiculous plot devices. Until the end, Safe Haven is a solid movie with a pleasant romance and a strong example of a woman standing up for herself against her abuser. Take out Jo and the dumb twist, and you’d have a movie about on par with The Vow. But too late for that.