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In The Notebook, lovers paddle canoes against blazing sunsets, fathers and sons read Whitman on the porch at dusk, and birds fly in slow motion to the strains of a melancholy piano. Oh, and a wrinkly old man regularly visits a woman suffering from dementia and reads her a love story. In another world, a young couple is torn apart because of class issues and sabotaged letters.

Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, Nick Cassavetes’ latest jumps between two time periods: the present, in which a man (James Garner) entertains an Alzheimer’s patient (Gena Rowlands) by reading from a journal, and the ’40s, when a determined poor boy named Noah (Ryan Gosling) pursues society girl Allie (Rachel McAdams). And for one brief, shining moment, the film rises above all this Hallmark crap to become an engaging drama in which life choices are complex enough not to be decided with poetic dialogue and soft lighting.

Still, there’s a lot of soft lighting: The kids fall in love, of course, and spend a syrupy summer together until Allie’s mother (Joan Allen) pronounces Noah “trash” and moves the family back to their winter home earlier than usual. Noah goes off to World War II, writing to Allie every day for a year. Her mother makes sure Allie doesn’t see the letters, however, and when Noah comes looking for her seven years later, she’s engaged to Lon (James Marsden), a wealthy and good-looking soldier.

A candlelit lovemaking scene in an abandoned mansion (though complete with piano!) and Garner’s mushy narrative (“despite their differences, they had one important thing in common—they were crazy about each other”) try desperately to make this romance seem more special than it is, but Noah and Allie in goo-goo-eyes mode aren’t terribly interesting. Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi’s script doesn’t give the characters much personality, so although McAdams (last seen as the überbitch in Mean Girls) and Gosling (usually cast as a fighter, not a lover, in movies such as The Believer) smile hugely at each other as they romp across the picturesque countryside, their attraction never really comes across.

A little conflict livens up the story, however, and for a short time The Notebook becomes a passionate and heartbreaking meditation on the choices we make for love and their consequences. The interaction of Garner’s and Rowland’s characters, initially irritating in its he’s-sweet, she’s-far-gone simplicity, also becomes more compelling when the script drops the storyteller-and-audience nonsense in favor of a good old-fashioned love connection. In fact, when the reasons for Garner’s devotion become clear, even the steeliest viewer might be ready to pull out a hankie.

But as unexpectedly as it becomes something substantial, The Notebook just as quickly degenerates back to Lifetime on steroids. When a more mature Allie asks Noah, “Do you think that our love could create miracles?” and he responds, “I think that our love can do anything we want it to,” you might even begin to look fondly on their summer of gush, which began with her original assessment of him: “You’re dumb.”

The Mother might be thought of as The Notebook in reverse: Though its story reflects on nearly every topic relevant to existence—sex, love, family, freedom, old age, death—its joy and heartbreak always feel intimate. Instead of punctuating the film with feel-this-now theatrics, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) lets emotional resonance spring quietly from the everyday.

After May (Anne Reid) loses her husband to a heart attack while the two are visiting their adult children in London, the 60-something goes back to her Northern hometown and announces to her son, Bobby, “If I sit down, I’ll never get up again. I’ll be like all those other old girls around here, and then I’ll go into a home. I’d rather kill myself.” May instead returns to London to stay—somewhat unwelcomely—with Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) in the chaotic, cacophonous home he shares with his snooty wife and their rude children. She also spends time with her navel-gazing daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), an emotional wreck whose struggles as a single mother and aspiring writer are compounded by her mercurial lover, Darren (Daniel Craig).

Hanif Kureishi’s script, like The Notebook’s, focuses on how one’s choices can have far-reaching effects. There’s a lot of suffocation in the relationships presented, from the subtle but stifling opening scene, in which May lies awake next to her audibly snoozing husband, to Paula’s hysterical plea for Darren to say he loves her, to the dizzying movement in Bobby and Helen’s house, where the only communication the two seem to have time for is of the yelling sort.

May takes in her family’s unhappiness as she reflects on her own and realizes that she’s sleepwalked through most of her life. Her newfound desire for everyone “to be alive before we die” leads to the film’s one liberating relationship: Paula asks May to spend her idle afternoons talking to Darren, a builder who’s working on Bobby’s house, to find out how he really feels about her. May happily engages the soulful, good-looking contractor, and though she tells Paula that she could do better, she ends up bedding Darren herself, relieving her of the fear that “no one would ever touch me again, apart from the undertaker.”

May’s sexual reawakening is the central development of The Mother, and it admittedly holds a car-wreck fascination. Sadly—though all the more affectingly—it’s difficult to see Darren’s attraction to her: Their rapport isn’t crackling, and her come-ons are no more artful than “Take me upstairs.” Michell and cinematographer Alwin Küchler, known for his work with Lynne Ramsay, shot their bedroom scenes candidly in afternoon sunlight, and even if you find watching May’s pleasurable writhing uncomfortable, you can’t deny the bliss of the encounters or fault her for gettin’ some while she still can. The ability of each of The Mother’s well-drawn, deeply flawed characters to eke out moments of happiness as they wrestle with life-sized dissatisfaction results in drama that doesn’t need flourishes to be felt.CP