From outward appearances, Dear John might seem an easy target for our sentimentality sensors. Our wary moviegoer’s dismissal instincts sense “chick flick” superficiality, especially with releases timed around Valentine’s Day. Girl meets boy during spring break, and boy is a soldier heading out on deployment, but they promise true love and a steady flow of letters (including a classic “Dear John” model). Ecstasies and understated agonies follow. But, recipe for sappiness notwithstanding, something sweet and easygoing this way comes, and by and large, the film scores points for subtlety and carefully calibrated romanticism, with only a few eye-rolling moments.
Swedish-born director Lasse Hallström maintains a nice light touch here, giving a simple, heartfelt story its due ease of pace and emotionality. Hallström has racked up an interesting, if uneven, filmography since My Life as a Dog 25 years ago, including the wondrous small film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but also the lame faux foreign flick Chocolat. When approaching this screen adaptation of Nicholas (The Notebook) Sparks’ novel, Hallström recognized the tricky balancing act involved in keeping a romantic tale taut and fluid, whilst dodging the temptation for goopy cliché. As in the inspired Gilbert Grape, the film’s narrative mix also includes elements of offbeat family life and the sensitively handled theme of autistic and Asperger’s syndrome-afflicted characters. (Richard Jenkins is sharp in the latter role.)
It helps that for leads, Hallström has beautiful young people—both Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried are also models—acting in a refreshingly and admirably understated way. Tatum, who has previously been to Iraq, movie-wise, in Stop-Loss, is just right as the sensitive but volatile soldier pulled deep into the cause post-9/11 morass, who explains to his new lover that soldiering involves “long stretches of boring, and little flashes of scary.” Seyfried is fresh-faced and lucid in her role as a conservative college student who falls for the soon-to-be-absent and war-imperiled soldier.
It may be just my forgiving Valentine’s Day sentimentality talking, but Dear John touches the heart in a fairly genuine romantic mode, only occasionally slipping into something sappier.