Seasonal film releases have become much predictable in recent years. If it’s Halloween, it must be time for either a Saw or Paranormal Activity movie to be in theaters. Likewise, if it’s late winter or early spring, there’s no avoiding the newest romance du jour inspired by the books of Nicholas Sparks. And, fellas, as hard as it may be, you may as well just bite the bullet and take your lady to Safe Haven willingly.

The small town of Southport, N.C., is drastically different than the old stomping grounds of wayward young traveler Katie (Julianne Hough), but she has no intent of going back to her old former home of Boston. The tranquility of the coastal burg is just what the jittery girl needs after a traumatic experience that forced her to head out on the lam, though she’s a little hesitant to open up to any of the residents. Try as she might to stay within her shell, Katie is eventually drawn to Alex (Josh Duhamel), the manager of the local general store and a widowed father of two, first as a friend and as something more, soon after. But all is not quite perfect, as Katie’s past starts to catch up with her, and a determined police officer (David Lyons) comes closer and closer to tracking her down.

In her first starring role that doesn’t involve choruses or choreography, Hough is better than you’d expect as the emotionally damaged woman picking up the pieces of her life. Make no mistake, she probably shouldn’t stray too far from her bread and butter — Footloose, Burlesque, Rock of Ages and Dancing with the Stars — but there are musical personalities who have done much worse venturing out into the film world. Duhamel does well enough as her new beau, the typical Sparks male lead: quick to fall in love with an encyclopedia’s worth of tricks up his sleeve to prove it to his more skeptical paramour. Although in his case, he also has two kids to think about, the younger, Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) just as enchanted by dad’s new friend, while the older, Josh (Noah Lomax), seems to have a chip on both shoulders about the threat to the status quo. How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders is also an OK addition as Jo, Katie’s only neighbor in the middle of nowhere, who encourages her to start anew despite all her misgivings.

If all this sounds familiar in one way or another, that’s probably because if you’ve seen one Nicholas Sparks adaptation, you truly have seen them all. That’s not even to say that his books are bad, simply that he knows what his readers want and has settled himself into a cozy niche. If you haven’t noticed this formula yet, just go through a marathon viewing of Nights in Rodanthe, The Notebook, The Last Song, The Lucky One and all the rest: characters healing from relationship troubles, meetings on the beach, some kind of tragedy, etc. With his latest to hit the screen — the fourth in three years — there’s nothing particularly new, including the direction by Lasse Hallström, who’s attached for his second go-around, following Dear John. Hallström’s morose approach to romance plays into a story that’s a little darker and more realistic than most of the Sparks oeuvre, though it’s still the author that shines through much more than the filmmaker. With the combination of the two of them, it makes for a serviceable if not spectacular date movie… until an eleventh hour revelation that will either blow your mind or make you roll your eyes.

There have been worse Sparks films than Safe Haven and manipulative and mediocre as it may be, you can’t deny his stories make you feel something, even if it’s exhaustion. With at least two more of his works coming down the pipeline to the Cineplex within the next year, maybe the Hough/Duhamel combo will look much better 12 months from now.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

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Featured photo: Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel star in Relativity Media’s “Safe Haven.” Photo Credit: James Bridges. © 2012 Relativity Media. All Rights Reserved.