Salem Falls is a gallingly short-sighted made-for-tv melodrama not because its risibly histrionic but because it champions a cosy and hypocritically safe kind of tolerance. Based on a script adapted by novelist Jodi Picoult, who also wrote the source book, Salem Falls raises issues that it’s not bold enough to maturely address. Because at its heart, Salem Falls is a love story about two social outcasts (James Van Der Beek and Sarah Carter) and not a real morality play.
Salem Falls is a romantic fantasy set in Picoult’s Everytown, USA, a place where small-town prejudices are patly vilified from a safe distance. The film starts innocently enough as a silly drama about three teen girls that resort to Wiccan white magic to get boys to love them. And then it turns into a sanctimonious drama where small-minded townsfolk, led by ethically bankrupt religious or secular authority figures, turn on two misfit lovers, both of whom have trust issues.
While these two lovers are suspected of behaving badly, none of Salem Falls’ protagonists ever behave too badly, lest the audience get weirded out of its comfort zone. We’re constantly re-assured that what makes the film’s two lovers different doesn’t make them too different: They’re just misunderstood, so it’s okay to root for them. This kind of gutless pandering may be par for the course when it comes to Lifetime original movies. But that doesn’t mean Salem Falls is not reprehensibly self-satisfied.
The falseness of the pseudo-down-home feel of Picoult’s brand of coffee klatsch Americana is almost immediately evident from the scenes set in the cozy but cheekily named local diner, the Do-or-Diner. Here, locals all sit by the counter and order coffee, eat French toast, and look like they’ve just pillaged a nearby Gap en masse. They’re clad in the latest in fall fashions. These are real people, damn it, and they just happen to dress reasonably well and on a budget, too. Real blue-collar America.
The most vocal people seated at the Do-or-Diner’s counter are a coven, I mean, group of three teenage girls, led by Gillian Duncan (Amanda Michalka), the daughter of Amos Duncan, the richest man in Salem Falls. Gillian’s been spoiled by her daddy. So she’s not shy about going up to Jack St. Bride (Van Der Beek), an unemployed high school history teacher, while he’s still talking to Addie Peabody (Carter), the Do-or-Diner’s owner and manager. Once she’s seen Jack, Gillian wants to put a spell on him. Literally. Since she’s already dabbling in Wiccan magic, she asks her Wiccan mentor Carol (Shauna MacDonald) for help in casting a love spell on Jack. The spell backfires, however, as Addie inadvertently intercepts the makeshift charm that Gillian makes.
Picoult takes more time to legitimize Wiccan magic and make it seem less outre than she does trying to make Jack and Addie’s respective problems seem threatening. This is a deliberate kind of short-sightedness. Picoult’s story is designed to flatter her audience and make them feel good for rooting for people they know are fundamentally well-behaved. The Wiccan sub-plot is just a MacGuffin, a plot point that seems like strange behavior but only winds up speeding up a process that viewers know should/will happen. Because Jack and Addie are meant to fall in love, Wiccan magic helps make that happen and later even helps make the couple inevitably break up momentarily before they can generically make up at the story’s end.
In Salem Falls, Wiccan witchcraft is a good kind of weird and different. According to Carol, Gillian’s spell didn’t help Gillian because Jack isn’t her true love. "Magic can’t make anything happen that isn’t already leaning that way,” she says. So, because Salem Falls exists in a reality governed by Picoult’s brand of wish fulfillment, the spell only works on Jack and Addie.
But what makes these two such pariahs? Addie mourns the death of her child Chloe, a 6-year-old who died three years ago and whose loss Addie has never since gotten over. This plot point is very poorly handled. Picoult makes it too easy for viewers to accept Addie as a selectively delusional character. After she talks to Jack about her problems, her habit of making pancakes and putting them out for her dead daughter doesn’t seem so strange. That is, this habit isn’t presented as being symptomatic of ill mental health when Jack legitimizes said behavior by approving it. So Addie talks about her daughter as if she’s still alive but is presented as being emotionally stable whenever Jack, the man of her dreams, believes in her. This is a spineless representation of a serious problem, but it’s not as spineless as the way Picoult treats Jack’s defining problem.
The whole reason why Jack allows himself to be intimidated by Gillian in the first place is that he’s a convicted sex offender. That is, he’s been arrested for raping a 16 year-old girl that attended the high school he used to work for. However, because Picoult doesn’t want to freak her audience out too much, Jack didn’t really inappropriately touch anyone. He only pleaded guilty because his lawyer told him to. If you read between the lines of Salem Falls’ narrative, you’ll see that it’s ok to have a Byronic love object but only when you can comfortably accept that he hasn’t done the things he’s accused of having done.
If this story were really about tolerance, Jack would have actually committed a crime. That would be a real test of Addie’s love, unlike the instantly surmountable road to redeeming Jack that Addie goes on after she immediately brushes him off. As it is, the bad guys that get punished in Salem Falls are just churlishly bad, like Amos and the father of the first girl that accused Jack of having raped her (her father is, of course, a minister). Picoult wants viewers to feel good about putting down stick figure badmen and cheering on misunderstood sensitive pretty boys like Jack. Salem Falls is consequently just mellifluous pap that wants to look more morally righteous than Picoult can actually stand to make it.