Huffing through the early scenes of The Last Song with black leather boots and a frozen pout, Miley Cyrus plays author Nicholas Sparks’ idea of a rebel, which is to say Ned Flanders’ idea of a rebel. Her nose is pierced (modestly), she shoplifted (once), she’s a vegetarian, she listens to music unlikely to be covered on American Idol, and she hasn’t followed through on an unsolicited admittance offer from Juilliard. (She doesn’t drink, however, lest anyone mistake her for a woman of loose morals.) Based on Sparks’ novel, The Last Song offers a taming-of-the-shrew scenario so relentlessly bland and old-fashioned it makes Dear John, the Sparks adaptation from two months ago, look like Last Tango In Paris.
Taking the tiniest of baby steps out of the Disney brand—shuffling right on over to Touchstone, in fact—Cyrus stars as a disenchanted 17-year-old still reeling from her parents’ divorce. An overqualified Greg Kinnear plays her father, a musician and artist who retreated to a beachside home on Tybee Island, Georgia, where he labors over the stained-glass replacement window for a small church recently damaged in a fire. Unlike her eager-to-please little brother (Bobby Coleman), Cyrus isn’t so quick to forgive her dad for abandoning them, so she goes under the boardwalk to sulk with the townies. When resident hunk Liam Hemsworth shows her some attention, she initially rebuffs his advances, but after a few kindnesses, a trip to the aquarium, and a beach volleyball game, she’s more or less putty in his hands.
This being a Nicholas Sparks scenario, the big question isn’t, “How’s this blissful summer going to end?” but “Who’s got cancer?,” and, on a related note, “Who’s going to take solace from the sea and/or sunset?” To be fair, the element of surprise isn’t high on Sparks’ dramatic agenda. What he really wants is to dampen Kleenexes, whether through the symbolic care of baby sea turtles or sob stories about long-lost siblings or an unfinished piano composition that could use the Juilliard touch. But, save for Kinnear, who’s relaxed and confident enough not to press the emotions too hard, the cast doesn’t have the chops to give much life to those big tear-jerker moments. That The Last Song manipulates is a given; that it manipulates so incompetently is unforgivable.