The Last Song was written as a Miley Cyrus vehicle and then novelized by its co-writer, Nicholas Sparks – he of the cut & paste romantic dramas Nights in Rodanthe and Dear John. Although The Last Song follows the patterns of his previous novels/film adaptations, it is – somewhat surprisingly – better than expected.
Ronnie [Cyrus] and her brother Jonah [Bobby Coleman] find themselves being driven to their father’s beachfront home [something bigger than a cottage, but smaller than a house] despite Ronnie’s total lack of interest. Their parents’ divorce still causes her pain. Their mother, Kim [Kelly Preston], is about to be remarried and she is insistent that the two spend the summer with their dad, Steve [Greg Kinnear].
Except for when she sleeps, Ronnie stays away as much as possible, meeting a beach volleyball player/auto mechanic named Will [Liam Hemsworth] in the usual cute manner [while volleying the ball, he accidentally bumps her, spilling her milkshake all over her shirt].
Will pursues her with the requisite good cheer and we know they’ll get together – just as we know that she will reconcile with her dad [whose letters she never opened], and that there will be the usual array of jealous exes, misunderstandings and malicious gossip. This being a Nicholas Sparks story, we can also be pretty sure that Will harbors a dark secret [no, not that he’s rich – you can see that one coming from a block away] and that there will be a tragedy… possibly involving illness. Then there’s the scholarship to Julliard that Ronnie hasn’t accepted [yet…].
As much as The Last Song is predictable, it is also surprising. We don’t see Kinnear in snark-free performances often enough and as Steve Miller [as a fan of the Steve Miller Band and the blues pianist of the same name, I had to get past chuckling at the character’s name], he is completely engaging. Preston is also solid as the at-first-stoic mom who must become a shoulder to cry on.
Where the film really surprises, though, is in Cyrus’ layered performance as Ronnie and the amazingly raw performance of Coleman. It’s not so much that Cyrus moves away from Hannah Montana country, it’s that she’s moved onto a whole ‘nother continent. Ronnie is in pain, but Cyrus doesn’t merely glower, frown and act out, she lets slip little hints of hope and gradually opens up – first to Will [thanks to a nest of sea turtle eggs] and later to her father. As predictable as The Last Song is, Cyrus makes Ronnie a real person.
Coleman has almost exactly the opposite arc – he’s thrilled to be seeing his father again, and as the film unfolds, he has to gradually come apart at the seams. It’s a powerful performance, especially coming from an eleven-year old boy.
Hemsworth doesn’t have too much to do beyond being charming and looking good, but in those brief moments where he’s called on to deliver emotional depth, he does.
Director Julie Anne Robinson [Grey’s Anatomy, Weeds] takes would should be a ho-hum, mortgage payment of a movie and makes it a bit more than tolerable by getting good [and occasionally great] work from her cast and by not leaning too heavily on the more tragic elements of the story. She also has a particularly deft touch when it comes to handling the film’s funnier bits. Even the score doesn’t belabour the film’s most emotional beats.
The Last Song gradually won me over, somewhat. I was expecting a morass of soppiness leavened with silliness. Instead, I got a movie that works, to some extent, because of cast and the direction. So, even though it’s a marginal recommendation, I think it’s worth seeing.
Final Grade: B-