With a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, you expect romance. And in “The Best of Me,” that’s exactly what you get: the kind of romance that starts with two people in high school and doesn’t quit during the whole next 20 years, even if their lives have appeared to go in different directions. Once they meet each other again, all the old feelings come flooding back, just like before. Except now it’s more complicated.
Dawson and Amanda are the two lovebirds who are breathlessly in love – not only with each other, but seemingly with the idea of their mutual love, as if that is some kind of third-party presence that’s always there with them, no matter where they go. The story is told by continuing to flash back and forth between the present and when they originally met (so we’re actually watching four actors play the two lead roles). Luke Bracey, as the younger Dawson, looks too old to be in high school, but he is convincing as the abused teenager who runs away from a cruel father (and a couple of complicit “white trash” brothers) and winds up seeking refuge in an unlocked mechanic’s shop owned by Tuck (Gerald McRaney). Tuck takes the frightened teenager in, encourages his natural interest in auto repair and, more importantly, creates a place for Dawson where it’s peaceful and where he’s safe.
Soon Dawson meets young Amanda (Liana Liberato), who has to take the lead in the flirtation because Dawson is too shy and abashed to know what to do. Before long, they are a real item. But all is not well with their families. Dawson’s father insists on “collecting” him and bringing him home – because he needs him to help with the drug-running operation. Amanda’s dad, a prosperous businessman, blatantly bribes Dawson with college money in exchange for staying away from his daughter. Dawson turns down the arrogant offer in disgust, despite his interest in college and his crying need for financial support, but soon is dragged down by his own family again. In the end, he decides Amanda would indeed be better off without him, despite her pleadings and protestations.
When you fast-forward 20 years, you have James Marsden playing Dawson, now a roughneck on an offshore oil rig, and Michelle Monaghan playing Amanda, now married and the mother of two children, one of whom is now graduating from high school. Dawson and Amanda are thrown back together by the death of Tuck who names them both in his will. And finding themselves together again after all these years, sifting through Tuck’s estate, they spend quite a bit of time sorting out what happened to them and how it is that they didn’t wind up together.
As churchgoing viewers, we’re a little bit torn here as we watch these two lovelorn people so obviously still in love with each other. She’s married. With children. So we’re supposed to root for The World’s Greatest Romance to destroy her marriage? Or maybe we’re cheering for the adultery to happen? And pretend it won’t have any lasting effect on the participants?
Hmmm. Yes, romance, or eros, if you will, can definitely have a life of its own. Whether it should be indulged beyond societal norms is not just an ethical question, but a religious and moral one. Funny that religion is never mentioned here. Though the film is “genteel” in the sense of the lovemaking being amazingly discreet and non-explicit and the scenes of romantic encounters being almost elegant in their dream-like understatement, there’s still a harsh undertone of lustful self-indulgence. And does that tap into the viewer’s secret desire to do something just a little naughty with a kind of thrilling reckless abandon seen only in, say, novels like those of Nicholas Sparks?
Maybe the writer of Song of Solomon had it right: “I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, to not stir up love, or awaken it until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 8:4).
Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.