Director Lasse Hallstrom specializes in steering sad and serious stories clear of potential sloppy sentimentality, and he manages to navigate the tricky emotional terrain quite skillfully in “Dear John,” considering that it’s based on a novel by the boss bestselling author of the romance genre, Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook,” “A Walk to Remember,” ad nauseam).
It helps also to have a top-notch screenwriter (Jamie Linden, “We Are Marshall”) penning the adaptation and a talented cast to keep things on a steady dramatic course.
Hunky Channing Tatum (“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) acquits himself quite well as John Tyree, a reserved and socially unskilled Special Forces soldier with a modest middleclass background, and Amanda Seyfried brings just the right level of sweetness and charm to Savannah Curtis, a bright, beautiful, outgoing college student from a wealthy South Carolina family.
These two are an unlikely couple, but things click quite quickly when they meet while he’s on leave visiting his father and she’s home for spring break. As Savannah draws John out of his shell, a whirlwind two-week courtship ensues, and by the time he has to return to his deployment, and she to school, they are deeply and passionately in love. They promise, beyond e-mails and cell phone calls, to write letters to each other faithfully until his tour of duty ends.
But when the 9/11 attacks shake the world, John feels duty-bound to re-enlist. The couple reunite only sporadically as John’s deployment continues to lengthen, and months begin to turn into years, with both people becoming increasingly torn between desire and responsibility, struggling to maintain their commitment.
To the film’s great benefit, the chemistry is strong between Tatum and Seyfried, and while many young actors could easily slip into sappy melodrama with material such as this, the steady hand of Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat”) keeps their performances controlled without muting emotion.
Henry Thomas is also endearing as Tim, a friend of the family who’s very protective of Savannah. He’s also a single father raising an autistic son (played by an amazing autistic boy, Braeden Reed), which causes a bond to form between Tim and John, who was raised by an autistic father himself.
And herein lies the secondary storyline — and the performance — that sets “Dear John” apart from other films of its genre. In the middle of this romantic drama we find Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) in a typically Oscar-caliber turn as John’s severely withdrawn dad, whose whole shut-in world is his coin collection, until Savannah begins to crack his shell as well, and reconnect him with his son.
With precious little dialogue, Jenkins’ portrait of a lost man is a stunning heartbreaker, stealing every scene that it inhabits, and easily worth the price of admission alone.
In sum, “Dear John” is a love letter to everyone.
PG-13 1:48 3 stars
Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Henry Thomas, Scott Porter and Richard Jenkins.
(Some sensuality and violence)
Audio Slide Show
Hear Channing Tatum talk about his role in “Dear John.”