The trick for any starlet making the transition from teen queen to adult roles is finding just enough edge. Miley Cyrus does that with The Last Song, a film built around a rebellious but still family-friendly teen dealing with love and loss in vintage Nicholas Sparks fashion.
Novelist Sparks (The Notebook) wrote the book and script, about a troubled girl sent to spend the summer with her father (Greg Kinnear), with Cyrus in mind. Thus, Veronica "Ronnie" Miller may pout like a teen, dress like a New York tart headed for trouble and already have a police record. But she's still one of Sparks' "good girls," with a generous heart, a sense of right and wrong and a gift for bringing out the best in that boy whose eye she catches the day she wanders the Georgia beach where Dad lives.
But Ronnie is still irked over her parents' divorce (Kelly Preston is the mom) and is happy to punish her dad, ignoring the little brother (Bobby Coleman) who needs them all to get along.
Two things soften Ronnie's hard shell. She discovers a sea turtle nest and vows to protect it from raccoons. And she meets a boy. Will (Liam Hemsworth) may have a reputation, but something about Ronnie makes him get serious, or at least serious about showing her that he's serious.
Slack pacing, sappy situations and banal dialogue plague films built on Sparks' novels, slow-footed movies such as Nights in Rodanthe and Dear John. Julie Anne Robinson, a TV veteran, directs her way around some of these pitfalls by keeping the story on its feet -- moving from beach to boardwalk to class clashes between the rougher locals and Ronnie.
The "simple pleasures" of a Sparks story -- carving your girlfriend's initials on a tree, Dad's atonement of making a new stained-glass window for the church, finding magic on a beach (baby turtles), volunteering at the Georgia Aquarium -- don't play as much ado about not much. Robinson skips past those moments and keeps the focus on young love, a parent reconnecting with his child and lingering guilt.
It's not a great film, with some of the edge that Sparks put in the novel left out of the script. But there's real chemistry between the young lovers and an old-fashioned virtue to the father-daughter and father-daughter's boyfriend scenes. Sparks often goes overboard with the maudlin and old-fashioned. But with The Last Song, those traits don't feel like a wet sack smothering the life out of it.