- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

"A Walk to Remember" may be a presold title, because it derives from a best seller by Nicholas Sparks, who tempted the movies to wretched excess a few years ago with the Kevin Costner tear-jerker "Message in a Bottle."

Far less precise but attached to a more defensible and appealing tear-jerker, the new title may redeem its blandness. It certainly could be worse. Alternatives such as "The Miracle of Love" or "Heaven's Beckoning Call" would fit the plot. What moviegoers are asked to do in the sentimentally devious but also beguiling and effective case of "A Walk to Remember" is cherish a courtship.

Set in Beaufort, N.C., in the present, it involves an inspirational teen-age mismatch of a slightly wild and contemptuous boy with resolutely straight-laced and ingenuous girl. It may come as a pleasant shock to many people to see this potential booby trap finessed as adorably as it is by the young leads, Shane West and Mandy Moore.

Their sincerity, rapport and freshness are showcased with exceptional vigilance and restraint by director Adam Shankman, who seems at the mercy of bad intuitions on just three occasions, two of which could be remedied only by drastically rewriting episodes.

Mr. West, whose name in the credits triggered a commotion at the press screening, actually justifies whatever groundswell of anticipation from ardent fans is awaiting this vehicle. A member of the "Once and Again" cast on television, he could pass as the kid brother of Neil Patrick Harris, the erstwhile Dr. Doogie Howser, and there's a hint of the young Jack Palance between mouth and jaw line. As Landon Carter, the mixed-up kid in "Walk to Remember," he progresses from budding delinquent to budding paragon without arousing toxic reactions.

You may choose to remain skeptical about the fictional Landon's conversion to virtue under the fleeting but perhaps decisive influence of Miss Moore's Jamie Sullivan, a parson's daughter whose standards exceed the promiscuous competition at Beaufort High. Nevertheless, you are convinced that Shane West is something to watch as a movie actor. His sense of the camera and his flair for underplaying while subject to its scrutiny are precociously impressive.

The movie begins badly, with the suggestion that it may find coarseness and delinquency irresistible. It switches emphasis fairly soon, after Landon escapes the consequences of a potentially fatal prank but must pay a couple of penalties designed to tame his unruliness: tutoring middle schoolers and joining the company of a school play.

Unfortunately, the play becomes something of a stumbling block in the middle of the movie. It might have made life easier if the high school were reviving a familiar musical. Innovative to a fault, Beaufort's drama department goes for a stumper written by a student; it's supposed to be a romantic musical set at a speak-easy, with Landon as a hood and Jamie as an angel of mercy, roles that mirror their emerging romance.

The mirroring is ill-conceived, especially when Miss Moore is given a song highlight that proves no highlight. If anything, it's a potential show sinker. Mr. Shankman's straightforward technique even goes all to pieces while he attempts to get lyrical this ballad, in waves of overlapping dissolves.

He sacrifices any sense of a realistic perspective on or off the stage.

Now brunette to underline Jamie's earnest temperament, Miss Moore gets a better vocal interlude with a verse or two of a hymn in an earlier sequence while establishing her character in the choir of her father's Baptist congregation. It's a racially integrated congregation, as a matter of fact, begging a few unanswered questions about how Pastor Sullivan (Peter Coyote, permitted to be a principled but always sane and sympathetic clergyman) managed to mastermind that innovation.

Miss Moore is a less reliable emotional instrument than her leading man, but Mr. Shankman usually is astute about protecting her inexperience.

The movie achieves a blissful romantic-comedy level during a date sequence that progresses from open-air dining and awkward dancing to a couple of inspired notions, one straddling the state line between North Carolina and Virginia and the other savoring the application of a butterfly tattoo to Miss Moore's left shoulder.

At one time, similarly tender and/or amusing intimacies were commonplace in movie romance, and it was assumed that carnal consummation, if any, could be left to the imagination of the audience.

Now it's usually assumed that the audience is too impatient to humor seductive preambles, so filmmakers jump right into bed, especially if pandering among high school or college students. "A Walk to Remember" blithely reverses the conventions and could find a grateful public for doing so.

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