By Dan Kois
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; C02
"The Last Song," starring Miley Cyrus, is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, which means that its title might as well be "There Will Be Tears." Just like "The Notebook" and "Message in a Bottle," "The Last Song" hews closely enough to the patented Sparks mix of romance and bathos that tears will flow as copiously in the audience as they do on-screen.
But it's less clear whether "The Last Song" can succeed in making a viable grown-up movie actress out of Cyrus, the star of Disney's "Hannah Montana" franchise.
Here, Cyrus tries on some black outfits and a bad attitude to play troubled teen Ronnie Miller. Fresh from a shoplifting arrest at home in New York, Ronnie is shipped, along with her little brother, to their father's beach house in some alternative version of Georgia where no one has a Southern accent. You may not think an idyllic summer at the beach sounds like much of a punishment, but Ronnie sure does, and spends the movie's first half-hour yelling at her dad (Greg Kinnear) and staring out at the sea while plaintive guitar-pop plays on the soundtrack.
Salvation comes, of course, in the form of a boy -- in this case, hunky Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth). We know he's perfect for her because he quotes Tolstoy and is just damaged enough to trigger Ronnie's rescue impulses. The summer romance moves so fast that a mere two scenes after a swoony first kiss at sunset, Will is writing "FOREVER" on Ronnie's Chuck Taylors.
And it's no spoiler to anyone who's seen a Nicholas Sparks movie that, soon afterward, someone gets sick and eventually dies. Veteran Sparks fans, in fact, will have Kleenex at the ready, seeking out clues: a glimpsed prescription, or that first pre-tubercular cough.
Cyrus's Everygirl charm is honed to a fine point by years as a Disney star, but she's not nearly enough of a natural actress to pull off the emotional whip cracks the story puts Ronnie through.
Will "The Last Song" resonate with a certain generation of young women the way, say, "The Notebook" has endured? I'm not so sure. The audience I saw it with responded with as many giggles as sniffles. It's not hard to make a sad, satisfying movie out of the ingredients assembled here: final hugs, brave smiles, crying kids and piano tributes. But it is hard to make a good one.
Kois is a freelance writer.
The Last Song
(107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for thematic material, some violence, sensuality and mild language.