‘Midnight Sun’ Proves That The Nicholas Sparks Genre Is Better Without Nicholas Sparks

Ed Araquel/Open Road Films

Through a feature I created called Plot Recreated Through Reviews, I became something of a connoisseur of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. The idea of the feature was that I could use nothing but the dull summary grafs from standard newspaper-style reviews and recreate every plot point of a (bad) movie, to the point where you almost felt like you’d seen it. Critics often resort to lazy summary when bored, and I find this hilarious for some reason. Nicholas Sparks movies worked the best, because, despite their mega-bland Mervyn’s commercial facade, they always consisted of a series of wild contrivances and last-minute twists, like telenovelas masquerading as episodes of One Tree Hill. Like boy, he really had to pull some deus ex machinas out of his ass just for those two bland honkies to find love, huh?

I came for the ridiculousness but, eventually, I got hooked by the formula. It was incredible how similar all his stories were. Sparks is like the narrative equivalent of a surf rock band, where you can’t help but be impressed by his ability to do the exact same thing slightly differently so many times. The basic formula is that two hot people meet through extraordinary circumstances in a small coastal town — often there’s a memento involved, like a notebook — and usually one of them has turned down a yodeling scholarship to Juilliard to stay in Spanish Moss Coastal Carolina and take care of their dead mom’s syphilitic mule or whatever. Dead parent, elaborate meet-cute, familial obligation, complication, etc., you get the picture. They have to ditch an abusive mate and/or defy disapproving parents in order to be with their one true love, ex-Marine Zac Efron, and they swear off Juilliard forever and live happily ever after on their own syphilitic mule sanctuary, far, far away from the big sinful city and the devil’s throat singing. Usually, there’s a preposterous argument to stretch it to feature length after the two leads have resolved all the plausible conflicts — “I can’t believe you lied to me about playing the ukulele!” — and sometimes you find out someone’s been a ghost the entire time at the end. Fun stuff. And often more entertaining to simply read the plot developments than to watch Miley Cyrus or whoever try to act them out.

That’s what I thought I was in for during the first part of Midnight Sun, which at first felt like a Nicholas Sparks story created by machine learning. Right out the gate, there’s a dead mom, a tragic heroine with a rare disease, a single dad, a lost scholarship, and multiple mementos.  The tragic heroine is Katie Price, played by Bella Thorne (hey, you guys know Katie Price is a famous British topless model, right?), who has a dead mom (car accident), a single dad (Rob Riggle), and a rare disease. You see, because of her xeroderma pigmentosum, or XP for short (a great drinking game for this movie is to drink every time someone says “XP”), Katie’s body is genetically incapable of repairing damage from UV rays. Which means, get this, She can’t go outside during the day or else she’ll get a brain tumor. This is apparently a real disease, and what a gift it is to the writers of teen weepies.

So for 18 years, Katie has just been sitting inside her dark tinted window house, getting homeschooled by her loving father, writing songs about her dead mom, and mooning over the hot neighbor boy who rides by every morning on his skateboard that she’s never met. My God! It’s like Everything, Everything (love story about the girl who couldn’t leave her house) meets The Fault In Our Stars (tragic cancer girl’s last dance) with a dash of Twilight (overwrought love story where one person is extremely sensitive to sunlight) and a musical twist. And the music even makes sense because what better hobby for a girl who can’t go outside during the day than writing yearnful acoustic ballads? My God, whoever came up with this premise, take a lunch break, you deserve it.

Ed Araquel/Open Road Films

So anyway, Katie’s skate crush, Charlie Reid (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is so bummed about losing his swim scholarship to Berkeley because of a freak shoulder injury (!!!) that he decides to walk home early from his super cool beach bonfire graduation party one night, even though the hot cheerleader (Tiera Skovbye) is totally throwing herself at him, and his one black friend (Austin Obiajunwa) really wishes he’d stay. (Always a good strategy, compensating for the sheer caucasity of the leads by filling every throwaway inch of screen with supportive black people — “Yeah, go get her, Chet!”) On his way home, Charlie walks past the town train station where some flaxen-haired angel is singing her siren’s song of acoustic folk to appreciative rail enthusiasts. He simply must meet her. But Katie, suddenly confronted by her forever crush, gets flustered, makes up an excuse, and runs away. Oh no! But now how will the hot white kids find love? Guess we have to cancel the movie… Luckily, wouldn’t you know it, Katie, in her haste, has left her songbook sitting right there on the train platform like a Cinderella slipper.

This far into the film the only possible hint that it wasn’t a Nicholas Sparks adaptation was the fact that it was set outside Seattle instead of coastal Carolina (and it makes coastal Washington look far, far warmer than it is in real life). Even the male lead being a more famous actor’s son is classic Sparks adaptation stuff (see also: Scott Eastwood in The Longest Ride). But actually, Midnight Sun is an adaptation of a 2006 Japanese film of the same name (note: XP is six times more common in Japan, where the sufferers are known as “moon children”), directed by Step Up: Revolution and Step Up: All In director Scott Speer. And Speer clearly knows how to handle some cheese.

Ed Araquel/Open Road Films

It’s not that Midnight Sun‘s leads are wildly charismatic — Thorne is fine (not a great lip syncher) and Schwarzenegger is very bland, though they both have a certain Norman Rockwell wholesomeness meets gym-sculpted bodies vibe to them. (Thorne looks like a young Jennifer Garner, Schwarzenegger like Josh Duhamel crossbred with Lucas Hedges and weaned on Adam’s apple enlarger tonic, both with very fine sets of teeth.) It’s more that with the Nicholas Sparks over-produced pop song premise, you’re expecting the Nicholas Sparks baggage that usually comes with it. You expect the over-the-top villain (abusive husband! rich snobby mom!), the demonization of coastal elites, the subtle paeans to culture war politics, and the preposterous twist at the end. (The best of these is probably Safe Haven, in which Julianne Hough finds out that her neighbor was actually the ghost of Josh Duhamel’s dead wife all along, leading Hough to him so that he could find love again. Spoiler alert.)

Only in Midnight Sun, that baggage never comes. And when teen romance turns out not to be an embittered curmudgeon’s Trojan horse for his retrograde worldview, it’s just… teen romance. It’s still saccharine, overwrought, blandly acted, painfully earnest, and uber-dramatic, and constantly staring longingly at the night sky and bodies of water for some reason, but… teen romance is all of those things. It fits. Maybe the Sparks formula isn’t so bad as long as Sparks himself isn’t involved.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.