The script, costumes, and props of The Last Song work hard to establish Miley Cyrus’s dramatic-role bona fides as the 17-year-old crosses over from G to PG: Her character, constantly sneering high school grad Ronnie Miller, sports a tiny nose stud, stomps on the beach in Doc Martens, believes meat is murder, calls someone a “bitch,” reads Anna Karenina, and hurts her dad’s feelings. But Cyrus’s co-stars must work harder to enter the nearly impenetrable force field surrounding the Disney cash calf.
The second Nicholas Sparks adaptation, after Dear John, to appear in two months (at this rate of productivity, the melodramatist may become the white Tyler Perry), The Last Song reverses the order of page-to-screen transfer: Sparks wrote the screenplay—his first, sharing credit with his college pal, Jeff Van Wie—before the novel, always with the intention of making this Cyrus’s big leap out of the hot-neon tween ghetto of Hannah Montana. (Though two Cyrus songs are on the soundtrack, the film strains so hard to prop up Cyrus as a legitimate actor that she sings onscreen only once, briefly, to Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved.”) A serious star vehicle for a rabbity, charmless, pint-size marketing juggernaut, The Last Song deprives viewers of the only reliable pleasure in the Sparks filmography—watching actors, of varying talents, evince real emotion and passion from the syrupy source material. Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried ignite in Dear John, just as Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams did before them in The Notebook; the former offers the even more miraculous moment of a tender child-parent farewell between Tatum and Richard Jenkins. Sparks’s latest finds Cyrus, sharing the screen with both a romantic interest and a fragile father, bonding most passionately with sea-turtle eggs.
The Last Song, unremarkably directed by first-timer Julie Anne Robinson, a TV vet, bears the usual Sparks trademarks: Southern beach-town setting, the evils of Dixie aristocracy, incurable disease in the penultimate act, the power of the epistolary. Children of divorce Ronnie and little brother Jonah (a gooey Bobby Coleman) are delivered by mom Kim (Kelly Preston) from New York City to Tybee Island, Georgia, home of dad Steve (Greg Kinnear) for the summer. A former piano prodigy (Dad taught her) and current shoplifter, Ronnie has refused to attend Juilliard or even touch the ivories, opting instead for a full-time career of adolescent insolence. She slams doors, upsetting Steve and Jonah’s stained-glass-window restoration project (part of a nonsensical subplot that gives the film a light sheen of religiosity, culminating in a scene of Cyrus bathed in celestial light). She snarls at volleyball-loving, prole-posing Will (Liam Hemsworth) until his shared concern over the fate of the sea-creature embryos (the hatchlings steal the movie) and further knowledge of the life aquatic soften her resistance.
I can’t recall ever squirming as much as I did during Ronnie and Will’s first kiss; shiny, buff Hemsworth looks like he’s locking lips with an Andy Hardy–era Mickey Rooney in a wig (he must have liked it—the two are reportedly now dating). The Cyrus machinery repels any believable human connection onscreen, though she’s not helped much by Sparks and Van Wie’s script: “I don’t want to be the next girl in a parade of girls,” Ronnie snorts. What little heat is generated emanates solely from Hemsworth’s frequently bare chest; a mud fight between the two teens occurs only to make it necessary for the actor to shuck his shirt and hose off. (When, in another instance of disastrous dialogue, Ronnie tells Will, “Maybe you should find someone more suited to your lifestyle,” you wonder whether she’s referring to readers of Honcho magazine.) But the real discomfort comes from watching Kinnear being forced to say, “You are the kindest, sweetest, most beautiful daughter in the whole world”—most likely at Billy Ray’s insistence.