If you don’t believe in the notion of destiny, please avoid “The Best of Me” for your own sake. If you see this film, you will have the concept drummed into your core, and you’ll rebel like a teenager. Actually, even if you do believe in it, please avoid “The Best of Me.” If the film’s conclusion is what passes for kismet, then you’re better off being a nonbeliever, since fate can be a cruel bitch and she clearly doesn’t care what you think.
“The Best of Me” is not that bad of a film until its final act. There’s a twist that taxes both the audience’s hearts and their brains, which wouldn’t be so annoying if it wasn’t a perfectly fine movie before it. The performances are solid, and it’s effectively emotional without being overly manipulative for the genre. Though sometimes clunky and a bit too expository, the dialogue isn’t terrible, thanks largely to earnest performances from the cast. But about that conclusion: of course it has to be sad. If a Nicholas Sparks adaptation like this one ended on a high note, the poles would probably reverse and we’d all die. So, thanks for being depressing, Mr. Sparks? We blame him, but knowing that Will Fetters (of the ridiculous “Remember Me”) wrote the script doesn’t improve our opinion. The marketing’s constant bleating about this being “A Michael Hoffman film” had us googling the director, but neither the resume (“One Fine Day,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“) or the direction here left us impressed.
In the present day, Dawson Cole (James Marsden) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) are high school sweethearts who haven’t seen each other for over two decades. When a mutual friend dies, they’re brought back together again, sparking flashbacks to their time together in the early ‘90s. Young Dawson (Luke Bracey) is from a family of criminals, but he longs for a more conventional life and likes reading physics textbooks on top of water towers. Meanwhile, young Amanda (Liana Liberato) hangs out with the popular kids and has a father who has lost track of how many cars he owns. She pursues him —for his brains, of course— and their happiness is only threatened by Dawson’s abusive father (Sean Bridgers). We see their past unfolding as they grow closer in the present, despite mutual pain and the additional baggage of Amanda’s marriage and son. What caused young Dawson and Amanda to grow apart? Are they really meant to be together? How many cars does Amanda’s dad have?
While the score from Aaron Zigman seems cobbled together from cheesiest romances of the ’90s, the film otherwise features a good soundtrack with nostalgia-inducing artists. Gin Blossoms and Cowboy Junkies punctuate the ’90s moments, while the present scenes feature country-inflected pop and pop-inflected country from Colbie Caillat and Lady Antebellum.
The flashbacks to the ’90s don’t feel period-specific other than the music and the occasional hairstyle. Young Amanda is particularly immune to the trends of the decade, instead looking like she’s shopping at an American Eagle of the 21st century and getting blowouts at Drybar. We know this wasn’t meant as a period film, but a bit more attention to detail wouldn’t have hurt its case. Similarly, Luke Bracey is handsome and talented, but no one can believe he grows up to be James Marsden (though the resemblance between Liberato and Monaghan is much closer).
Marsden seems to always play the romantic also-ran, coming in second to the hero in films (“Enchanted,” “Superman Returns,” “The Notebook,” etc.), so it’s refreshing and well-deserved to see him upgraded and cast as the likable lead. Like Marsden, Monaghan often plays a wife or love interest, and does so well in “The Best of Me.” But it would be unfortunate if this is the role that pushes her to the next level —instead of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Gone Baby Gone” or “True Detective”— but we’ll take what we can get.
The ‘90s plotline features a pair of solid young actors. Bracey’s Dawson is quiet and pained, cracking an easy smile, while Liberato’s Amanda is far more innocent. As Dawson’s surrogate father, Gerald McRaney is alternately warm and grumpy, elevating each scene he’s in. Please be our grandpa, Mr. McRaney.
“The Best of Me” will likely play well with its intended audience, who know to bring a travel-size pack of tissues to the theater. But thanks to its ending, this doesn’t rank among the better Nicholas Sparks adaptations, like “The Notebook.” Like that movie, “The Best of Me” features actors who are playing well above their material, but Monaghan and Marsden aren’t enough to save this film. [C-]