Two Pretty Teenagers Trying to Out-Christ Each Other

04/01/2010 5:30 PM |

The Last Song
Directed by Julie Anne Robinson

The Last Song represents a strategic marketing move for lil’ industry Miley Cyrus: she hitches her serious-drama wagon to romance grinder Nicholas Sparks, back with a new weeper an epic two months after his last one. This meeting of the market segments may be why the love affair in The Last Song has all of sexiness and warmth of a corporate merger.

Or less, actually—participants in corporate mergers are allowed to express some degree of greed, lust, or desire, those non-pious emotions that Sparks wants little, if anything, to do with. The author’s first original screenplay, from which he reversed-engineered another novel, has sullen high school graduate Ronnie Miller (Miley Cyrus, who by filming this at sixteen became the first starlet in the past two decades to actually play older) visiting her estranged father Steve (Greg Kinnear) for the summer, with an adorably precocious, which is to say absolutely fucking insufferable, younger brother (Bobby Coleman) in tow.

We know Ronnie is sullen for the following reasons: she arrives wearing a hoodie. The hoodie is black. She has a shoulder bag. Her shoulder bag is also black. Then she walks on the beach in boots (I guess she didn’t get the memo). Also, she refuses to indulge her gift for piano-playing, to spite her composer dad. This detail pulls the Miley/Sparks compatibility into sharp focus: Sparks heroines must have some if not many quietly exceptional qualities, while pop singers seem to favor roles painting them as a casual, relatable genius, like the greedy insistence of Crossroads that Britney Spears play a virginal, charismatic valedictorian.

Weirdly, The Last Song reduces its music interest to a mere tangent; once in awhile, Ronnie’s piano habit pops up, like a fit of epilepsy, but it’s no more central to the story than, say, suspected arson, or stained glass. It’s more important that Ronnie be established as kind, charitable, non-drinking, non-slutty, slightly suspicious of the handsome shirtless Will (Liam Hemsworth, with an Australian accent lodged in his chest like phlegm), but eventually won over by his similar goodness and a courtship that consists mainly of splashing and playful shoves. Look, I have no problem with innocent heroes in movies aimed at pre-to-teenage girls, but I’m a teetotaling nerd who pays to see teen movies, and even I start to find the Sparks ideal woman a bit of virtuous killjoy after awhile.

So, yes, The Last Song contains all of the familiar Nicholas Sparks elements that render his movies auteur-friendly yet director-irrelevant, possibly all of them; you start the movie wondering which character is going to die tastefully and photogenically, and your first-reel guess probably won’t be wrong. Apart from its status as sort of an uber-Sparks narrative, the film is most instructive for its professional development: how the author fares co-writing his own screenplay and how Miley Cyrus fares in a movie that’s not principally concerned with maintaining discreet hair-colors.

As to the former, Sparks mainly makes his characters say each other’s names a lot, like constantly, like he’s been watching the last half of Titanic even more often than we could’ve imagined; all together, it seems to slow the movie down by about thirty minutes. Miley, though, is sort of fascinating for her combination of confidence and lack of poise. Hunched over like she’s about to get rained on, teeth and cheeks sticking out like a cartoon bunny, Cyrus appears so earnest as to not think she need try very hard. Her best moments are completely incidental, as when she sings along to a Maroon 5 song on the radio; the song is awful and her voice isn’t so great, but for a moment she has a kind of carefree spontaneity.

Of course, Will compliments her on her beautiful singing voice; even an offhand moment becomes creepy exceptionalism fodder. This might not feel so galling if Sparks wasn’t convinced that his characters represent messy, damaged humanity. “We’re not perfect,” multiple characters remind each other, “we make mistakes”—though these characters collectively make some of the most selfless, motivated, informed, reasonable mistakes ever committed to film, and in fact spend much of the movie’s last act trying to out-Christ each other. The Last Song isn’t much worse than any other Sparks movie, but it does feel a touch more mercenary about its Christian goodness, when even a little messiness might’ve made some difference. Instead, it leads by vaguely sickening example: bowing its head like yeah, forgiving your sins like yeah.

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