The novels of Nicholas Sparks are godsends for Hollywood ingenues, not to mention Hollywood. As many of his books tell stories of young love clinging to the trellis of hope, they make ideal vehicles for actresses transitioning from teenage to adult roles. His familiar motifs of love blooming across class divisions and despite unforeseen tragedy and family feuds have made him the undisputed Kaiser of Kleenex.
In the tradition of Mandy Moore, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried, Miley Cyrus - the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana - does Sparks in The Last Song, an effective, and relatively restrained, tearjerker for daddies and their daughters.
Cyrus plays Ronnie, short for Veronica, a Gothish 17-year-old. She is a piano prodigy who hasn't been near a Steinway since her parents' divorce three years ago. Despite Ronnie's nimbus of negativity, people are drawn to her. Reflexively, she pushes them away. "That's what I'm good at," she tells her mother.
Then Ronnie's mom (Kelly Preston) deposits daughter and preteen son Jonah (Bobby Coleman) for the summer at dad's weathered beach house (Wilmington, N.C., in the book, but Tybee Island, Ga., in the movie). Her hope is that the spawn will reconnect with their estranged parent (Greg Kinnear as Steve).
Bolting from dad's house, Ronnie runs smack into Will (Liam Hemsworth), a hunk playing beach volleyball. He's interested in Ronnie. She's interested in maintaining her pose of indifference, and buries her nose in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, you know, the one with the famous opening line about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way?
This low-key film from veteran TV director Julie Anne Robinson (from a screenplay by Sparks himself) is properly focused on character. (This is in stark contrast to most Sparks adaptations, which feature thrashing seas and summer storms as correlatives of the characters' emotional weather.) Crisply, Robinson establishes Ronnie's fear of intimacy as fear of abandonment. Her father broke her heart. Why should she trust him - or any male?
As Ronnie, Cyrus is two-note: Petulant or tentatively hopeful. Despite (or because of) years of TV training, Cyrus lacks emotional range. She moves with self-consciousness, as though acutely aware of the camera. Still, her moods are relatable - especially when Ronnie dedicates herself to protecting a nest of turtle eggs and Will sees turtle duty as a way to get close to her.
The early sequences of the film seem rushed, introducing the audience to a number of characters who are significant to the subplots but fairly disposable and one-dimensional in the main story line. The three parallel love stories of daughter and dad, girlfriend and boyfriend, sister and brother, are nicely handled. Robinson is a sympathetic director of actors, allowing almost everyone their dignity. For the most part, she keeps this emotionally charged story in the schmaltz-free zone.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl.