The blooming of new love in 2015 and the odds-defying relationship between soulmates in the 1940s intersect in "The Longest Ride," director George Tillman Jr. (2010's "Faster
") and scribe Craig Bolotin's (1999's "Light It Up
") calculating but ultimately touching adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' 2013 novel. Best-selling author Sparks knows how to adhere to a formula that will emotionally manipulate his dedicated readers in the best ways, and while the films based on his work have been made with varying degrees of success, this one shows a modicum of restraint while avoiding the hoariest of clichés. That is not to suggest the story is free of contrivances and plot devicesit isn'tbut that Tillman and his cast are able to find the truth within each scene even when the script is blatantly pulling the strings.
Passionate Wake Forest art major Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) is mere weeks away from moving to Manhattan for a coveted gallery internship, a fact not lost on her when she finds herself falling for professional bull rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood). Driving back from their first date, they spot a fiery car accident and narrowly save the injured driver inside, the elderly Ira Levinson (Alan Alda). At the hospital, Sophia finds a stack of old letters in a box she pulled from the wreckage, written by Ira as a young man (Jack Huston) to his one true loveand eventual wifeRuth (Oona Chaplin). Theirs is a love story both sweeping and intimate, full of the happiness and disappointments that make up two intertwining lives fated for each other. As Sophia returns to read them to Ira, whose eyesight is fading, her own burgeoning romance is facing a number of obstacles. Luke's insistence on continuing to bull-ride even as a bad injury a year earlier puts him at immediate risk leaves Sophia and his mom, Kate (Lolita Davidovich), worrying for his life. With her big-city future and his small-town roots at odds, they have no choice but to make some tough decisions about whether they are right for each other.
The advertising materials for "The Longest Ride" have focused almost exclusively on the present-day scenes between Sophia and Luke, but this portion of the narrative is rather sudsy and standard-issue. If the film doesn't entirely sell these opposites as a perfect match who will go the distance, Britt Robertson (2011's "Scream 4
") and Scott Eastwood (2013's "Texas Chainsaw
") are very easy on the eyes and share a nice, ingratiating chemistry. In their first major leading film roles, both actors exhibit a star-quality spark that should take them far. By having to share alternating screen time with the more emotionally involving scenes with Ira and Ruth, though, Sophia and Luke's less deep, more orchestrated conflicts pale in comparison. Indeed, the heart of the picture lies with this couple from years' past, whose dreams of starting a family are dashed when Ira is injured in WWII. The life they build in spite of this complication, filled with art and teaching and an enduring love that all should be lucky enough to experience, is beautifully, wistfully portrayed. Jack Huston (2013's "American Hustle
") and the especially exquisite Oona Chaplin are so very affecting as Ira and Ruth, and their story so involving, that one wishes a full two-hour film would have been made just about them. The two halves of "The Longest Ride" do not always smoothly congeal, but like 2004's "The Notebook
," it is a sure bet that it will work for its target audienceand likely a few skeptics as well.