Word is that Nicholas Sparks wrote The Last Song for Miley Cyrus—who is really, really serious about quitting music to pursue a career in movies. This seems a sound professional move (no one can be Hannah Montana forever, after all). But based on the evidence of this film, it needs more serious deliberation.
Cyrus has a number of obstacles to overcome here, not least being Sparks’ grinding story formula, in which lonely, wounded, and definitively pretty people meet on a beach, discover true love and endure a life-changing death. In this version, Cyrus plays Ronnie, a teenager who performs her rebellious misery by wearing black lace-up boots, torn pantyhose, and blue fingernails. As the movie begins, Ronnie’s mother Kim (Kelly Preston) is driving her and adorable little brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) to the beach. More specifically, they’re headed for a summer’s visit with their estranged father Steve (Greg Kinnear), who lives in a perfect cottage on the sunny shore in Georgia. ‘“Promise me you’ll make an effort,” says mom as she drops off the kids. Not even.
Ronnie’s mad at lots of things, apparently, but most immediately her father’s absence. Not understanding how he could have walked out on the family, she’s not inclined to hear how he and Kim learned the hard way that sometimes, “love isn’t enough.” (It’s just as well this backstory stops here, with this treacly bit of explanation.) Ronnie isn’t actually mean, of course, or even selfish per se. She’s just damaged by her parents’ divorce, disappointed by broken promises, and unable to tolerate adults’ foibles.
Ronnie’s glowering and slouching are standard signs of her adolescent displeasure, as is her arrest for shoplifting (this last making her now “untrustworthy” in her parents’ eyes). But the primary sign of her pain is more particular, that is, her decision to stop playing piano. Not only does this plot point lead directly to the film’s excruciating title (see also: that inevitable death of a loved one), but it also shows just how angry she is, that she would cut off her nose, as it were, to spite her face. A childhood prodigy who spent long hours playing piano with her songwriter/artist father, Ronnie now refuses even to touch the keys, much less go to Juilliard, where she has been accepted despite her recent best efforts to sabotage her grades. (When she does play the piano—as she must—Ronnie’s hands are never in the same shot as her swaying body or impassioned face, suggesting that Cyrus never quite mastered the instrument for this part.) Ronnie’s refusal to play is apparently a loss to mankind, though her dad tends to point out her self-inflicted suffering sans music. Someday, he promises, she’ll play again.
The route to this recovery has to do with dad, of course, but it also has to do with an eye-opening, grandly passionate romance, rendered in . Ronnie and her object, Will (Liam Hemsworth) meet very cute on the beach, when he slams into her and knocks her strawberry milkshake all over her t-shirt. The other local kids—blond, tanned, and, in the girls’ cases, bikinied—predictably scorn the newcomer, but Will, extra-blond and extra-tanned, as well as (bonus points!) tall and athletic, decides on the spot that he loves her. A beach volleyball player who works part time as a mechanic and volunteers at the local aquarium, he spends his spare time convincing Ronnie of their perfect chemistry and long-term future.
Will’s labors will be rewarded, though he faces the usual sorts of hurdles, including class differences, secret pasts, his white-boy bully buddies, her dramatics, not to mention the requisite montage sequences, which Julie Anne Robinson’s movie piles on mercilessly—in the rain and in the water, driving and running, laughing and kissing. He’s especially keen on Ronnie’s interest in a nest of turtle’s eggs, which she sets out to protect from raccoons, and her not-quite suppressed musical talents (when he hears her singing along with the car radio, boyfriend is astounded: “You can really sing!”). And let’s not even start on the fact that she’s impressed that he can recite the first line of Anna Karenina.
The Sparksian formula being what it is, none of these elements is surprising. That Cyrus selected this formula as her pronouncement of grown-upness and dedication to cinema doesn’t bode so well. Or rather, it underlines what’s perennially frustrating about the industry: devotion to repetition rather than innovation, to profits as a measure of success, and to crossover product management as a means to that success. None of these strategies indicates respect for viewers. That the formula is now—with Dear John and The Last Song—being aimed at young consumers as well as their mothers (the presumed Nights in Rodanthe demo), is not a little dispiriting.