Dear John (Sony Pictures, PG-13)

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dearjohn.jpgIn a film based around a breakup signifying an end, more meaningful threads emerge and steal the show.

Tis the season for romantic love letters and Nicholas Sparks’ love stories. But this time around, Sparks doesn’t give his audience sonnets; he sends them a breakup letter. Before the modern era of text messaging and e-mails, “Dear John” letters were the bitchy way for young girls to break up with their soldier boyfriends while they were off at war. I hope they ended with “P.S. Even though you probably want to kill me, thanks for fighting for my freedom.” In a film based around a breakup signifying an end, more meaningful threads emerge and steal the show.

Dear John follows a soldier conveniently named John Tyree (Tatum Channing). During the  two weeks while he is on leave, he falls in love with Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried). Savannah is a complete goody-goody. Her family owns a beach house and she rides horses. She does community service and strays from anything fun, like drinking or cursing. John grew up in a completely different lifestyle with an aggressive and shady past. His single-parent father (Richard Jenkins) is slightly autistic and obsesses over collecting coins. Opposites attract and, for months, John and Savannah nurture a long-distance relationship through good, old-fashioned, handwritten letters. Then 9/11 happens, leading John to reenlist during the time of need. His relationship with Savannah seems to be going OK until he is stuck waiting for any sign of a letter from her. Finally the mail arrives, but this letter does not repeat sappy words of longing as in previous notes. John starts reading and you quickly find out that she is ending their relationship. You never hear the entirety of the letter, but you know it’s over. Eventually John shares that she got engaged to someone else. What a cheap move.

The trivial romance between John and Savannah does not make this movie. Their lives change and a more realistic relationship comes forth. John and his father used to collect coins together, yet over time he went through awkward teen-mode and lost any interest in coins or paying attention to his father. After the father falls ill, their story becomes more convincing and heartfelt than John’s fling with Savannah the saint; this part of the narrative could have been a movie in itself. Another surprising element to shine through Sparks’ formulaic story is the presence of the war. Seeing 9/11 happen on the screen is a cringing remembrance of the attacks. It offers a new perspective on what soldiers had to endure then and continue to face today. They can’t tell their loved ones where they are or even guarantee that they will receive mail. Dear John’s release is suitably almost a week after President Obama nationally declared an exit date for Iraq.

Sparks built a rollercoaster of an emotional breakup story, which of course is expected. He gives you a steamy kiss in the rain and a soft acoustic soundtrack. But through the cheesiness and usually half-naked Tatum, there is still some respect left for the reminders of a never-ending war and a glimpse at a touching father-son relationship. | Alice Telios

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