Miley Cyrus shows us how her reach exceeds her grasp in “The Last Song,” an attempt to move past Hannah Montana. She has become Disney’s most valuable property through the force of her personality, comic timing, and way with a pop song. But pop princesses grow up, though usually not quite as quickly as they want to. And valuable properties are hard to turn down. So when one of the world’s biggest superstars-turned-brand wants to make a grown-up movie, she gets her way.
That is why “The Last Song” plays like a check-list of everything a 17-year old would like to make as an antidote to the perpetually sunny Hannah Montana rather than a movie that works. After the sugary Disney Channel hijinks, she gets to play something a tiny bit edgy, a sulky teenager with a pierced nose, sent to live with her estranged father for the summer. Nicholas Sparks, for the first time adapting one of his own books, supplies his brand of synthetic syrup — broken hearts must find love amidst devastating losses, preferably through some exchanges of mail, all of this near a body of water with a beach.
Cyrus plays Veronica (Ronnie), a recent high school graduate who is so angry at just about everything and everyone that she is refusing to go to Julliard in the fall even though she is so talented that they accepted despite her refusal to play the piano. They just knew how great she was and accepted her anyway. Her mother (Kelly Preston) drops her off with her little brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman in the film’s most natural performance) at their dad’s beach house. Jonah is thrilled to be there but Ronnie is still angry with their father (Greg Kinnear as Steve) for leaving them and refuses to have anything to do with him as she had refused to read his letters.
Ronnie meets a cute guy named Will (Liam Hemsworth) and they bond over protecting a nest of sea turtle eggs. A falling-in-love montage is quickly followed by a trying-on-clothes-in-the-vintage-shop montage, which at least has the advantage of giving us a break from the dialogue and plot developments. But before long, the screen is littered with complications as Will and Ronnie have to cope with divided loyalties and then with something much more serious.
It’s all pretty enough, and Sparks is an expert at manipulative melodrama. Cyrus has a likable, unforced screen presence but does not have the training or focus to make Ronnie real or show us any change more significant than the switch from black to pastels and the disappearance of the nose stud. The screenplay feels episodic and scattered, like a collection of discount greeting cards. And the movie feels like a very expensive screen test for a star who needs to learn that sitcom skills are not enough to make a movie drama work.