There aren't a lot of surprises in store when a film is struck from Nicholas Sparks and is called "The Last Song." There will be young love in the picturesque South, there will be a battery of contrivances keeping those crazy kids apart, and there will be tragedy and much rending of hair.
"Last Song" is one of those maudlin romantic melodramas you just can't warn folks off. They're going to see it, though they know the story before they get in the car. Sullen, half-heartedly goth teen Ronnie (Miley Cyrus sans "Hannah Montana" trappings) is dropped off with energetic kid brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) for a coastal summer with estranged musician dad Steve (Greg Kinnear). Piano prodigy Ronnie has quit playing out of spite; Dad patiently bears her teen angst. Despite -- because of? -- her sulking, Ronnie catches the eye of dreamy local stud Will (Liam Hemsworth), whose shirtlessness is explored in depth. Spoiler alert: Will's terrible secret is that he's perfect.
There are bells and whistles -- swimming in aquarium tanks, which is an awesome first-date trick if you can get away with it again and again; the usual wan rivalries; an unconvincing threat from a minor character -- but the two strands that matter are whether Ronnie will forgive her father and reconnect before the coda, and whether she will forgive Will for whatever wrong grace note he's hit that's so awful she would turn a deaf ear to him.
But this is what it's come to with modern romance. It's just too easy to communicate these days when it's important. So the crafters of heavy-handed fluff must rely on audiences' goodwill to accept that characters who were willing to go to "Say Anything" lengths for someone just a scene ago, suddenly can't find a name in their contact lists. In "Dear John," Sparks resorted to Sept. 11 and autism as plot points. Here, the scale is smaller but the theatrics are equivalent. Even more than in most specimens of the genre, the characters are die-cast figures whose positions on the board we're not to question, though little justification for their moves together or apart is forthcoming. The acting is similarly an unconnected series of camera-ready smiles and poses. Only Kinnear survives the attrition, sort of.
Giving serious consideration to a widget such as "Last Song" is like dancing about architecture. Those hungry for this kind of calculated, faux-emotional escapism can order the usual from this familiar menu, and really, what's wrong with that? There was audible sobbing in the screening this reviewer attended, so somebody cares. But for those wondering if the continuing popularity of such exercises might make this one worth the ticket price, the same effect might be achieved by writing names and obstacles (make some tragic) on index cards and tossing them in the air.