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(2002) (Mandy Moore, Shane West) (PG)

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Drama: Two disparate high school students find themselves unexpectedly falling for each other.
Landon Carter (SHANE WEST) and Jamie Sullivan (MANDY MOORE) may have grown up together in the small town of Beaufort, North Carolina, but they couldn't be more dissimilar. Landon, who lives with his single mom, Cynthia (DARYL HANNAH), is the popular boy in their school who hangs out with the "in crowd" and makes fun of other students such as Jamie.

She's the only daughter of Reverend Sullivan (PETER COYOTE), the town's minister. Rather plain in both attire and looks, Jamie is nevertheless confident in herself and her faith, and doesn't care what others think of her.

When Landon is punished for a hazing incident that went bad and injured fellow student Clay Gephardt (MATT LUTZ), he ends up doing his time by being assigned to tutor disadvantaged students at another school and having to participate in his school's spring play. He isn't thrilled with either prospect, particularly when he sees that Jamie is involved with both of them as well.

Yet, it turns out he's not such a creep when he's by himself, and thus asks Jamie for her help in rehearsing their lines for the play. She reluctantly agrees, and although the two have their differences and he occasionally still treats her poorly, they eventually but unintentionally find themselves falling for each other.

This doesn't sit well with his friends, including Dean (CLAYNE CRAWFORD) and Eric (AL THOMPSON), or his ex-girlfriend, Belinda (LAUREN GERMAN), who's jealous of the attention he's paying to Jamie. Even so, he continues seeing her and begins becoming a better person, while she allows herself to open up and love someone, something she thought she'd never allow.

When a troubling revelation is made, however, the two must deal with the changes it brings to their relationship as well as the various external forces that don't want them to be a couple.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Imagine, if you will, a story about a disrespectful teen who, through his reckless ways, inadvertently causes something bad to happen and is then "sentenced" to some community service. While doing that, he gets to know a self-assured girl far outside his social circle and falls for her, despite what he thinks is his better sense and the opinions of his friends.

The two eventually bring out the best of one another and both grow as people, but tragedy then interrupts their happiness and threatens their transformation. Will he revert to his bad boy ways? Will love conquer all? Find out on the next episode of the After School Special, "Teen Melodrama."

If you think that sounds like I'm referencing 2000's "Here on Earth," you'd be right. Yet, I'm actually referring to "A Walk to Remember," yet another schmaltzy teen romance flick that's so similar to that Leelee Sobieski/Chris Klein film that you'll likely be getting that déjà vu feeling all over again.

To be fair, the film is based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Nicholas Sparks - who also had an earlier work, "Message in a Bottle," adapted to the big screen - but it's unclear who delivered their story first (since screenplays of films such as "Here on Earth" are occasionally delivered a few to many years before the finished product hits theaters). Whatever the case, the rule of first across the finish line also applies here, so this film - that's aimed at that same teen demographic - feels like warmed over leftovers.

Featuring the starring debut of pop singer turned actress Mandy Moore (who previously appeared in a supporting role in "The Princess Diaries"), the film has all of the requisite elements to play to her fan base and other teens.

Beyond her belting out songs in the film and on the accompanying soundtrack - you just knew she couldn't get away without performing at least one, now didn't you? - there are the star-crossed teens who end up falling in love despite their differences, their friends and parents who don't understand, and the obligatory tragic elements that are dropped in to get the tear ducts flowing and keep Kleenex in business.

Unfortunately, the way in which director Adam Shankman ("The Wedding Planner") has assembled those familiar elements results in a weepy melodrama that only less discerning teens will probably be able to stomach and/or enjoy. Despite screenwriter Karen Janszen ("The Matchmaker," "Free Willy 2") moving the original story's setting from the 1950s to contemporary times, and the inclusion of the modern rock/pop soundtrack, the film feels hopelessly old-fashioned in a bad and syrupy sweet sort of way.

It also comes off as rather flat in execution, with only a few moments in the film - namely when Landon fulfills some of Jamie's "must do" wishes - managing to click. The material surrounding that, however, does not and will likely try the patience of most viewers.

The first half, where Landon is punished for being involved in a hazing incident gone bad, isn't remotely credible, particularly in this day and age. Of his three punishments for nearly accidentally killing another teen, only one - helping the janitor - seems credible. His also being assigned to tutor a disadvantaged student is laughable when not scary, but at least it's not as ludicrous as him being forced to star as the lead in the school play.

While we're supposed to recognize that beneath his antisocial behavior he's really a smart, talented and theatrically inclined young man, the filmmakers don't set up either him or his punishments so that we buy into any of it. The result is that the first part of the film feels nothing short of contrived.

At least it's not as bad as the third act, however, where the tragedy bomb is dropped onto both the unsuspecting characters and viewers. Again, if more effective foreshadowing had been in place, the revelation would have been easier to accept, but that's not the case. The entire element feels one hundred percent manipulative and thus doesn't carry what could have been a naturally occurring emotional wallop. That is, unless you're prone to easy eye leaking or a case of the sniffles.

Of course, considering the directorial manipulation that occurs earlier in the film, none of that should have come as much of a surprise. For instance, when we're introduced to Jamie and Landon's ex-girlfriend in church, not only does the camera focus on them, but each also has some extra lighting hitting them just to make sure we don't miss their introduction.

As far as the performances are concerned, they're pretty much rote for a film such as this. Perhaps in a move to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress, Moore shuns her trademark golden locks, sexy attire and made-up look for more of a "plain Jane" appearance. While she convincingly pulls off the physical transformation, and thankfully doesn't stink up the place with her thespian effort as some might be expecting, she isn't terribly impressive either.

Playing against her, Shane West ("Get Over It," "Dracula 2000") does the typical bad boy turned decent kid transformation, and while he might send young teen girls' hearts aflutter, he's simply missing that something extra to make him stand out and/or be memorable in the role.

Lauren German ("Down to You"), Clayne Crawford ("Gas Station Jesus") and Al Thompson ("Shaft," "For Love of the Game") can't really do much with their particular teen characters, and the script doesn't give Daryl Hannah ("Roxanne," "Wall Street") much time or attention to do anything with her single mom role. Only Peter Coyote ("Erin Brockovich," "E.T.") gets a decent, albeit familiar character with which to work.

While the film might play okay or even rather well to some young and impressionable teenage girls, all of the schmaltz and manipulative melodrama will make this a walk you'll probably want to run through and forget as quickly as possible. "A Walk to Remember" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed January 17, 2002 / Posted January 25, 2002

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