Over the weekend, the epistolary romance Dear John stunned Hollywood by grossing a spectacular $32 million, not only bumping Avatar off its box office pedestal, but breaking a Super Bowl weekend record.
Hollywood might be surprised, but anyone who has had any contact with a teenager recently totally saw this coming. A week ago, my 17-year-old niece, Samantha Scharf, wrote me this on Facebook: "im [sic] actually so excited that movie it looks so cute and romantic but not like an older people romantic, since the characters are younger. Like I actually want to see it so bad…"
"She's not a good leading lady," said Isabel Murray of Amanda Seyfried. "We picture Channing Tatum with a hotter girl."
Sam wanted to see it sooo bad that on Friday she and 20 of her classmates, all seniors at Radnor High School in Radnor, Pennsylvania, ditched school at noon to park themselves in a theater and watch Dear John, which is adapted from the novel by Nicholas Sparks and directed by Lasse Hallström. (Granted, the school day was something of a wash, as most kids were out "sick" after staying out late the night before at Wing Bowl, a Super Bowl-themed wings-eating contest that began at 3 a.m. and featured an appearance by Jersey Shore's Snooki.)
"I wasn't missing anything," Sam told me over the phone on Saturday night. In school, she meant. "I just wrote a letter with my mom's signature."
I hope Hollywood is paying attention. For as long as anyone can remember—or at least since the birth of Super Mario Bros.—it's been taken as a given that the movie industry's Holy Grail is 13-year-old boys. The thinking is: If you make it for them, they will come, and Hollywood will prosper. Hence: Transformers, Iron Man, Ninja Assassin.
But the jaw-dropping success of films such as Twilight, High School Musical, and now, Dear John are proving that these days, it's girls who rule the entertainment industry. (Boys, meanwhile, are too busy with their iPads and Xboxes to bother going to the theater.) The movies may be alternately cheesy and sappy, and the scripts laughable, but teen and tween girls don't care. What they care about is Robert Pattinson's broody face, Taylor Lautner's ripped abs, and, now, Channing Tatum's, uh, Channing-ness. (Sam's assessment: "He's so hot!" She then clarified: hotter than Lautner, but not as hot as Pattinson.)
Sam and her friends had lots more to say when I checked in with them for a post-game analysis of Dear John. And herein lies even more good news for Hollywood. The girls—and one guy, Brendan Doyle, who went along, because "getting out of school and seeing it was better than staying in school"—didn't even think the movie was that good! (Needless to say, adults are even less charmed. Reviews, such as Betsy Sharkey's in the Los Angeles Times, have been scathing.)
(Attention: Major spoiler alerts ahead!)
"Um, we liked the beginning, but the ending kind of, like—we weren't prepared for them not to be together," said 17-year-old Cori Sinnott, who is a die-hard fan of Sparks. A Walk to Remember and The Notebook, another blockbuster, are her favorite movies, and she can't wait for The Last Song, starring Miley Cyrus, to come out next month; Cori's reading the book now.
Quick Dear John plot summary: Tatum plays the totally hot John, who's about to return to war, but before doing so, he jumps off a pier and rescues a purse belonging to the also hot Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Romance ensues, as do a lot of other complications involving John's autistic dad, back-and-forth love letters, Savannah's no-good ex, and a slightly older man whom Savannah ultimately winds up with. It's this latter point that left the girls dumbfounded.
"Eww—that was so gross!" chimed in Chandler Taylor (the girls, including another friend, Isabel Murray, were all over at Cori's house, talking on speaker phone), of Dear John's un-Hollywood ending. "I definitely think it ruined the movie. I just think everyone wanted her [Seyfried] to end up with Channing Tatum, because, I don't know, it was kind of like she was the main girl. It was just kind of, like, weird."
Sam agreed: "I don't like how she married the old guy. He had a kid who was autistic, and she wanted to make sure the kid had a mom. I think that's a stupid reason to marry this weird, old guy. She could have just lived with him. She didn't have to, like, marry him. That's unrealistic. This guy is like 30 years older than her. He was an old fart. And she was so young. It was just like— what?"
(The "old fart" is played by 38-year-old Henry Thomas—who was Elliott in E.T.)
Granted, until Thomas came along and ruined everything, the girls were right there with Dear John, loving when Tatum took his shirt off to go surfing, empathizing with his obsessive, coin-collecting father, and weeping when that father passed away.
"I cried three times," said Cori. "When the dad died, and, maybe, when John was burning all the letters. We all cried when he was burning his letters. It was after she wrote that awful letter, saying, 'I found someone else.' She was saying she was engaged. He was off at war. It was so sad."
" Everyone was crying when the dad dies," Sam said.
Suddenly Chandler piped up: "Will you call Cori's phone? Mine's running out of batteries."
During Part 2 of the discussion, conducted via Cori's iPhone, the subject of Seyfried, the Goldilockian star of Mamma Mia! and Big Love, came up. The girls were unanimous haters.
"She's not a good leading lady," declared Isabel. "We picture Channing Tatum with a hotter girl."
Sam was even harsher. "The girl is so ugly. She's not cute. I don't know. She's just weird-looking. Her eyes are so big."
After some consideration, she allowed: "The person has to look like a really good girl. She's, like, doing charity work and stuff. So I guess they got that right."
Asked if she related to a young person spending her time on such service-oriented enterprises (Savannah, who doesn't drink or smoke, spends her time building houses for the needy), Sam said: "No. And no one writes letters, either."
Adhering to the Twilight model, there is more sexual repression than steamy action in Dear John, though here the trope apparently didn't work as well.
"There was a sex scene," said Sam, sounding unimpressed. "They went to some random house, just like in The Notebook. It was, like, OK. We don't need to know that. It was just awkward. It was, like, G. Like something they'd allow on TV."
The overall feeling toward the movie, which everyone said did not measure up to The Notebook, was summed up by Isabel: "I'd see the first half again. But the ending was a buzzkill."
As for Doyle, who was the only guy in the theater and who was reached at home, where he was playing Call of Duty, he said, "At some points it was fine, but a lot of it was boring."
His favorite scene?
"When he got shot."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.