Watching Miley Grow: ‘The Last Song’ (2010)

It’s tough being Miley Cyrus nowadays As the last vestiges of her phenom status grow up and head off to middle school, as the blatant backlash to her meteoric rise settles in and becomes precedent, as her attempts to leave a certain Ms. Montana behind for bigger and better things stalls and stumbles, there are those who still cop to her place as a relevant pop culture figure. Part of this perplexing process involves finding the proper “adult” roles to help the Southern fried 17-year-old make the grand media leap. This past year, two such examples struggled into cinemas worldwide. The most recent was a blink and you’ll miss it bit in the atrocious Sex and the City sequel. The first was an attempt to build on the bank already established by schmaltz expert author Nicholas Sparks with yet another adaptation of his work. The Last Song, however, is a poor representation for all involved – star and scribe.

Billy Ray’s baby plays Veronica “Ronnie” Miller, the typical angry teen being shipped off to dad by a distant, disconnected mom. Once a piano prodigy and student at Julliard, our heroine naturally shuns the instrument and the paternal influence that pushed her in that direction in the first place. As Dad (Greg Kinnear) deals with his disgruntled adolescent and her younger brother, Ronnie runs into local hottie Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth) and the attraction is immediate. Of course, Miss Thing is too cool for this Georgia rube and she rejects his initial advances. Eventually, they become close, which helps Ronnie deal with her complicated feelings toward her father. Just when things seem to be improving, illness hits the Miller home. Then Will leaves for college. Struggling to keep it together, Ronnie must grow up and help realize her dad’s final dream – an unfinished song for his beloved daughter.

Unlike previous adaptations of his work, Sparks headed up the screenplay efforts for The Last Song (new to DVD and Blu-ray), and it shows. No, it’s no worse than any of the other five previous attempts to bring his homespun Harlequin romanticizing to the big screen. In fact, The Last Song rivals The Notebook as one of the best literary to lame movie transitions in the writer’s extensive catalog (which includes Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John, Message in a Bottle, and A Walk to Remember). As a genius of such formulaic fiction, Sparks knows where the intrinsic emotional manipulations lie. With the help of chum and fellow first time screenplay scribbler Jeff Van Wie, he creates the kind of creaky, olds school sentimentality that sends matrons and pre-pubescent girls scrambling for their kerchiefs – or their pimply boyfriend’s sweaty hand.

If The Last Song has a single significant issue – and there are probably a dozen or more a true cinephile could pick over – it’s the casting of Ms. Cyrus. Up front, Miley is not miserable. She’s capable, competent, and quite accomplished at times. Indeed, when not trying to be pert and cutesy, she can come across as down home, dependable, and delightful. Anyone who saw her work in the Hannah Montana movie knows that there is more to this formidable flash in the pan than House of Mouse marketing. But here, surrounded by such upscale actors as Kinnear, Hemsworth, and Kelly Preston, our lead seems limp. It’s like watching a group of trained Shakespeareans arching along with a superficial face of the moment from the CW. Cyrus has the basics down pat. She can react and revisit her necessary personality tics, but anything more dimensional is beyond her grasp.

Again, it’s not an issue of talent so much as timing. Had she dropped out of the scene for a while, taken up a college career and found an interest outside of a Teen Choice level of fame, said life experiences would shade and shadow her return to center stage. But as someone who’s spent almost all their life in the limelight, shuttled from one starring vehicle to another, Cyrus doesn’t possess the history to handle such waterworks. She’s a product, not a true performer, and The Last Song highlights this time and time again. Take the finale, when she must find the strength to cope with tragedy in both her home and personal dynamics. Instead of earning our emotional trust, getting us to sympathize with her plight, she’s all pauses and preplanned moves. Every angry outburst looks like a 5th grader having a hissy fit, not a real bit of feeling. Even worse, as a performer herself, Cyrus is unconvincing as a maker of music.

Since everything about The Last Song hinges on her, since the film’s success rises and falls on her various scripted moods, the results are a rollercoaster of unearned epiphanies. For their part, Kinnear and Hemsworth can barely keep up. As the narrative moans and groans, as it takes the tag “tear-jerker” literally (meaning its purposefully pulls the water from your weepers), one can see the unspoken possibilities in such pap. In some surreal way, The Last Song is Five Easy Pieces minus everything that makes the latter a post-modern motion picture classic. Instead of going for personal resonance or cultural significance, Sparks simply jumpstarts his ancient cliche machine and plugs a plethora of treaclely truisms into his well worn word processor. The results give tragedy a bad name.

For Ms. Cyrus, this means the transition will be even tougher. No matter how good it looks or how well supplemented the home video package is, The Last Song won’t cross over. Instead, it will satisfy some in the intended desperate yet still dating (or dreaming of same) demo while ignoring any real mainstream appeal. In Sparks’ case, that’s par for the creative course. Like Stephanie Meyer and her meaningless vampire update, he is a product of his era, not a measure of literary timelessness. But for the artist formerly known as a Disney dynasty and her bid for continuing social and industry relevance, The Last Song is a step sidewise. It shows some significant growth, but also argues for the currently limited scope of her reach. It will take a lot more than such a shaky showing to break Uncle Walt’s worried grasp.

RATING 4 / 10
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