Look at that title carefully. The Last Song. If you think you're going to escape Nicolas Sparks' trademark Inevitable Tragedy, well, you don't know Sparks. The author has become the brand name for sun-soaked Southern melodrama, full of first love longings and, oh yeah, the Inevitable Tragedy. It doesn't even matter if the story feels like it needs one; you're going to get one anyway. It's all part of the formula.
The Last Song is not one of Sparks' stronger efforts -- a shaggy, rambling screenplay that doesn't have a narrative so much as it loosely assembles a series of moments that Miley Cyrus can storm away from while saying, "You never told me about (fill in the blank)!!!" She's Ronnie Miller, girl with a troubled past, trying to ride out the summer on Georgia's Tybee Island under the care of her estranged father (the reliably appealing Greg Kinnear). She meets cute blue-blood beach bum Will (Liam Hemsworth), saves sea turtles, and generally sneers at everything and everyone for the first half of the film.
Withering sarcasm is not Cyrus's strong suit as an actress. Once she kisses Will, she does a complete character turn (for no real reason other than, hey, kissing is fun), and is finally allowed to "just be Miley," to paraphrase her hit song. You don't have to be a chameleon-like actor to be a movie star, and Cyrus is definitely at her most appealing when she's playing a variation of her own personality, rather than posturing as the surly brat. She's not fooling anybody. Giggling during a mud fight or rolling around in the surf in a belly shirt while making out? That she can do.
This is Cyrus's bid to grow up a little as an actress, while not alienating her fan base, and for that purpose, The Last Song looks to be a solid choice for the television star. It has echoes of Twilight (disaffected new-girl-in-town falls for someone in a romance that seems doomed) without Twilight's dour sexuality. Sparks really stacks the deck with life-changing plot twists as well, with bits involving a girl in an abusive relationship (Carly Chaikin), suspected arson, divorce, teenage infidelity, and the dreaded (but not too surprising) Inevitable Tragedy. It's an entire season's worth of a teen soap opera crammed into a feature film.
I can't say I think Cyrus is a fantastic actress, but she's a unique screen presence. She acts almost entirely with her mouth, letting her lips do all of the thinking, instead of her eyes (which is a very odd thing for a big screen actor to do). It's like when George Clooney used to emote using only head nods. She does manage to sneak in a few genuine moments through some awfully flat dialogue (by Sparks and Jeff Van Wie) and too-obvious directing by Julie Anne Robinson. Her little brother, played by Bobby Coleman, is a phenomenal child actor, and it's his easy chemistry with Kinnear that makes the shaky first half of the film so tolerable.
"Tolerable" may sound like faint praise, but for someone who isn't the intended audience for The Last Song (and, no, I don't think thirty-something males are the intended audience) that's not so bad. I'd imagine Cyrus fans (and Sparks fans) will enjoy their large box of tissues as much as their large box of popcorn, surely more than the average movie-goer. It may not have the edge that it needs to kick Miley Cyrus's career into adult relevancy, but if you're looking for an inoffensive romantic tearjerker, you'll get what you pay for.