The Notebook

Starring Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, Joan Allen, James Garner, and Gena Rowlands. Rated PG.

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Sometimes all you want is a scoop of vanilla. In a silly season dominated by amorous ogres, pubescent warlocks, and cyborg spouses, that leaves The Notebook. A sweet, mortal-boy-meets-mortal-girl swoonfest, Nick Cassavetes's drama is the gooey double cone that slides down real good.

This tale of thwarted young romance in the '40s is a pro-teen manifesto that illustrates the importance of listening to your heart instead of to adults who've screwed up their own love lives. It's about forgiveness, selflessness, and affection that endures. Teenagers are intelligent and responsible. Nobody farts under the bedcovers. Profanities are nonexistent. Our couple doesn't end up in the sack after too many Jell-O shooters at the local strip club. In short, The Notebook is a throwback to traditional romance: a lovely diversion for saps; kryptonite for pessimists. Based on the book by Nicholas Sparks, the story is told in flashback by an elderly man (James Garner) who reads the couple's tale aloud from an old notebook to an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes's mom).

Watch for a star on the rise in Rachel McAdams, as endearing and fully-drawn here as she was comically toxic as Regina George in Mean Girls. The 27-year-old native of London, Ontario, gives a riveting performance as wealthy Allie Nelson, opposite fellow Ontarian Ryan Gosling (Murder By Numbers) as love interest Noah Calhoun. Separated by Allie's "practical" mother (chilly-as-a ­Dilly Bar Joan Allen) because Noah earns a mere 40 cents an hour, and then kept apart by the Second World War, our lovers are reunited seven years later. Alas, one of them is now off the market. Whether or not true love will win out has us gnawing our knuckles for the film's duration. But given the entanglements restricting our protagonists, which love will prove to be the truest?

Director Cassavetes knew that for us to invest fully in the couple's fate, he needed to establish their Krazy Glue ­tight bond beyond lustful eye contact and bawling orchestrals. He does so with languorously developed scenes--sometimes we wonder if he's taking too long to cut to the chase--such as when the two lie side-by-side watching the traffic lights change, or gaily kiss ice-cream splotches off each other's grinning faces. Allie, not merely "a pretty girl", is brainy, goofy, and confident. We understand how the laconic Noah would pine for her. At times, however, Noah, like Kevin Costner's character in the film adaptation of Sparks's Message in a Bottle, threatens to devolve into a pathetic lunkhead unworthy of our effervescent heroine. Just in time, Cassavetes pulls him out of the dive.

In the end, the fact that Noah's heart is dangling on the line as much as Allie's, and that the film's other likable male characters--including Allie's fiancé (a beaming James Marsden) and Noah's father (a genial Sam Shepard)--are as soft as rose petals, mean The Notebook is more than the chick flick it first appears to be.