WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead.
Amid the crowd of blonde girl pop stars who rolled out at more or less the same moment (Britney, Christina, Jessica), Mandy Moore stands out. Just count the ways: she’s the first to dye her hair brown; the first to pitch Neutrogena; the first to host her own MTV talk show last summer (Mandy), plus numerous gabby specials; and the youngest (she was 14 when her single, “Candy,” made everyone want her and when her first album, So Real, was released in 1999, and only a year older when this album was repackaged as I Wanna Be With You). She’s also the first to make it to the movies — as a high school diva in last year’s The Princess Diaries and now, as the polite, religious, excruciatingly virtuous protagonist in A Walk to Remember.
But, really, all of these firsts are less important in defining Moore’s singularity than the fact that, out of this impressively talented, perfectly made-up, and terrifically bankrolled group, she is the only one who looks honestly tranquil in front of a camera. For all the practice Britney got as a Musketeer, and for all of Jessica’s polished piousness and Christina’s manifest confidence, they all maintain a kind of well-trained pre-packaged affect, so utterly aware of how they’re being looked at and how they mean for people to interpret their actions and appearance, that they tend to look, well, stressed — smiles a little too taut, outfits a little too sewed on, makeup a little too air-brushed.
Mandy Moore, on the other hand, looks almost preternaturally comfortable in her skin. The girl has poise for days. Okay, so her recent music video, “In My Pocket,” followed the usual suit for pop stars of her moment, presenting her as something akin to sultry, and actually didn’t come off as “so real.” But I can’t think of another pop star who handles herself so well with both mob scenes and individual fans and interviewees: she has done little skits and counseling sessions on Mandy, and teen-celeb interviews for MTV teen-celeb specials. And she quickly became MTV’s go-to pop girl for hosting duties, as at last year’s summer events and the 2001 New Year’s bash. Through it all, even when she’s flustered or on the verge of fluster, she looks fine with the whole silly business, at ease with herself, her family, and her extraordinary situation, mature enough to handle the many demands made of her. Even when critics pan her albums — calling them, say, “overproduced,” “bland” — Moore looks fine. Selling more records than everyone else, making more money than god — who cares? The girl is hard not to like.
This charismatic self-security is both a help and a hindrance in A Walk to Remember, in which she plays Jaime Sullivan, a “mousy” high school student living in smalltown North Carolina. Though she wears the same baggy dresses and (literally) the same green cotton sweater to school everyday, though the cool kids taunt her mercilessly, and though her father (Peter Coyote) is the local uptight reverend, Jaime is extraordinarily serene, almost beatific. Moore carries this off only partly — she’s clearly not a mousy girl, but she does appear confident enough to hold up under the abuse. When the coolest of the cool kids, Landon Carter (Shane West, of tv’s Once & Again), gets in some serious trouble, he’s sent not to juvie hall but to the high school drama club, where he’s miraculously assigned the lead, opposite superstar singer Mandy Moore… uh, I mean, superstar singer Jaime. For green sweater girl is transformed when she sings on stage — in a word, she’s dazzling.
So dazzling that Landon, who has already stated secretly to “like” her during their weeks of rehearsing together, is just stricken when he sees her play a nightclub siren, in a slinky but chaste powder blue gown. At the same time, the camera indiscreetly cuts from one audience member to another — the drama teacher and Jaime’s dad, as well as the Landon contingent — his mom (Daryl Hannah), black friend Eric (Al Thompson), and former-but-still-pining girlfriend Belinda (Lauren German) — all looking increasingly thrilled but also horrified by what’s happening in front of them, namely, Landon falls desperately in love with Jaime, on stage.
Directed by Adam (The Wedding Planner Shankman, and based on Nicholas Sparks’ “best-selling novel” (he also wrote the novel on which Costner’s Message in a Bottle is based), A Walk to Remember is audaciously corny. Indeed, it revels in its corn. Though screenwriter Karen Janszen has displaced the story from the ’50s to now, the film insists that the same values apply, across these 50 years. Jaime’s charm and her awkwardness are both based in the spectacle of her decency, so profoundly eccentric nowadays that her peers can’t help themselves but to be mean. From all outward appearances, Jaime is happy to cook meals for her dad, volunteer at the hospital, tutor younger kids after school, and save herself for marriage (you know, like Britney Spears). Until, of course, Landon pledges his troth. At this moment, everything changes.
And, at this moment, come the plot spoilers.
First, Jaime and Landon endure a series of several falling-in-love scenes: they look at the stars with her homemade telescope, slow dance, dine at a fine restaurant, kiss and cuddle, and bear up together under still more cool clique meanness at school. She defies her father, sneaking out one night to see her suddenly lovely boy. He gives up his old (apparently hiphop) habits: when Eric comes by for a visit, Landon rejects his choice of “Get Ur Freak On,” in favor of a Jars of Clay tune. She asks, “Are you trying to seduce me?” He asks back, “Are you seducible?” The answer to both is, yes and no. He’s so completely changed by his interactions with Jaime that he’s fine with appreciating her beauty sincerely and asexually (aside from petting and puppyish gazing). And she’s so moved by his “miraculous” make over that she’s willing to go pet and gaze (going farther than she’s ever even considered going with anyone else).
And then, Jaime drops the other shoe: she’s terminally ill, in fact, she’s dying in a few weeks. The movie has nowhere to go from here, and so slides off into a weepy, banal sunset. Jaime has a faint one day, and from then on, looks increasingly wan (at least she doesn’t have to exchange her makeup-look for a no-makeup-look, since she’s been made up throughout the film to look like she’s not wearing makeup) and also steadfast, helping Landon and her dad to cope with their loss. Shades of Winona-Leelee-Ali McGraw-and-Bette Davis. (Come to think of it: when was the last time you saw a movie where the boy dies of a withering-but-strangely-glowifying illness to teach the girl an important life lesson?)
It’s sad. Not that Jaime dies or that Landon cries, or even that the moral trappings of the film are so single-mindedly, so reductively, “conservative” (in the various meanings of the word). The tragedy is that A Walk to Remember is so unimaginative and dull. Mandy Moore deserves better, and, though the industry tends to work against talent and self-respect rather than with them, she may still find it.