Safe Haven, the latest film adaptation from romance writer Nicholas Sparks (Dear John, Message in a Bottle) opens on a dark, stormy night in Boston.

A young woman bursts out of a house, running. She fights her way through the heavy rain, running, always running, as police cars, lights and sirens wailing, follow.

The runner is Katie, an elegant, slim, troubled, haunted woman whose distress, fear, and anxiety are palpable. She gives the cops the slip and boards the first bus she can find.

Played with welcome diligence, if not enough dramatic confidence, by Julianne Hough, Katie disembarks the Atlanta-bound bus when it pulls in for a pit stop at a pretty coastal town in North Carolina. She buys a coffee at the local market from a crotchety-yet-supremely-handsome-and-tall man, and decides to stay.

There's already a spark in Katie's first meeting with Alex the shop owner, the mysterious if somewhat morose dreamboat played by Josh Duhamel.

Alex has a past as tragic as Katie's - his wife, the love of his life, died recently, leaving Alex to raise their two small children.

Our hearts swell (or so the filmmakers hope) then and there, just a few minutes into the picture, as we realize that Katie and Alex are destined for each other.

Our hearts sink when we find out, from hazy flashbacks, that Katie may be a murderer. We sink further when we realize she's being doggedly pursued by an angry, obsessive cop (David Lyons). Why is he so fixated on Katie?

Shot in Southport, N.C., an idyllic hamlet of 1,000, Safe Haven is the eighth Sparks novel (of 16) produced for the screen (fear not, he has plans for the other eight). And it's the second directed by Swedish-born master craftsman Lasse Hallström, who also did Dear John. Like its equally weepy predecessors, it's a pretty-looking, wonderfully facile bit of emotional froth that's likely to clean up at the box office.

Not one of Sparks' best flicks (The Notebook is quite good) Safe Haven is marred by film cliches. It has an alarming number of throwaway montage sequences - Katie painting her kitchen floor; Alex putting the kids to bed - set to weepy singer-songwriter fare by Colbie Caillat, Dar Williams, and Amos Lee. And it ends, regrettably, with two plot twists you can see coming a mile away.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2436 or tirdad@phillynews.com.