If you know anything in advance about The Last Song, you know that it stars Miley Cyrus. You also probably have an opinion about her. She is, after all, the formidably successful teen Disney Channel hatchling who heads a global pop culture empire that now stretches from Hannah Montana mania to a line of Walmart clothing. But in order to get the most out of The Last Song, it's best to tune out your awareness of Cyrus' celebrity. Or the fact that this mild, girl-oriented tearjerker has been written specifically for the young star to expand her thespian range, in a story machine-welded by indefatigable best-seller churner Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) and coscreenwriter Jeff Van Wie.
So forget all that. Just know that The Last Song stars a dark-haired up-and-comer in the role of a sullen teenage girl named Ronnie. Ronnie and her kid brother have come from New York City to spend a summer in an atmospheric Southern beach town with their divorced father. (Likable-dad player Greg Kinnear plays Dad.) Ronnie's relationship with her father is pretty awful, but their communication gets better after she meets a nice, cute guy named Will (Liam Hemsworth), whose niceness makes Ronnie nicer, too. And that's good, because before this melodrama comes to its sand-and-surf conclusion, Ronnie, Dad, Will, and just about every single resident of this atmospheric Southern beach town will experience character-building challenges and heartrending sadnesses. These are guaranteed to result in tears, for the sad fictional people on screen as well as for the satisfied real people watching in movie theaters.
And here's the revelation: Miley Cyrus is a really interesting movie star in the making, with an intriguing echo-of-foghorn speaking voice, and a scuffed-up tomboyish physicality (in the Kristen Stewart mode) that sets her apart from daintier girls in her celebrity class. As Ronnie, turning moods on a dime the way girls her age do, Cyrus sustains a perfectly believable demonstration of post-high-school, precollege female longing. She shows anger, vulnerability, defensiveness. And she anchors a serviceable idealized drama about how a loving relationship between a father and daughter paves the way for that lucky daughter to one day find adult love. B