There's no such thing as a good divorce.
That's a reality Ronnie Miller knows all too well. In the wake of her parents' devastating split, the 18-year-old piano prodigy stands on the knife edge of decision. Will she allow bitterness to consume her? Or will she learn to forgive and embrace the fact that even if life isn't always perfect, it's still worth living with an open heart?
As The Last Song opens, bitterness is winning that tug-of-war. Ronnie's folks have decided that she and her little brother, Jonah, should spend the summer with their father. And it's a long way from New York City to the beachfront Georgia resort town where her father, Steve, resides. That distance, however, is nothing compared to the gaping chasm between Ronnie and her dad, whom she blames for ... everything.
Upon arrival, Ronnie barely breathes a word to her father before slouching off to the beach, looking like a sullen thrift-store castaway in Doc Martens. It takes her all of five minutes to find someone a few miles further down the same troubled road, a streetwise, street-hardened young woman named Blaze. Blaze summarizes her life story in two words: "Families suck." Ronnie agrees.
Fast-forward five more minutes, however, and an errant volleyball punctures Ronnie's brooding narcissism. Or, I should say, the shirtless hunk going after the ball, Will Blakelee, accomplishes that task.
Ronnie's annoyed. Will's intrigued. And a few more serendipitous encounters seal the deal … for Will anyway. But he'll need all of his resources (read: piercing gazes, six-pack abs, a kind heart and a high tolerance for pouting) in order to scale the walls around Ronnie's heart.
As he focuses on that task, Ronnie discovers that maybe life isn't so bad after all … and that maybe her dad isn't the soulless home wrecker she's made him out to be.
This story turns on a romance. But The Last Song is as much about family and forgiveness as it is teen twitterpation. It illustrates how divorce wreaks havoc on the children affected by it. After Ronnie skulks down to the beach, Steve's ex-wife tries to help him see how wounded Ronnie is. "We hurt them, Steve," Kim says. Though he's mildly dismissive ("Things happen. Nobody's perfect"), Ronnie's father is immensely interested in reconnecting with his daughter. He's patient when she's moody, and he tries to serve her in practical ways.
As love blossoms between Will and Ronnie, she needs a confidant … and Dad's the only person around. Gradually, Ronnie shares her heart not only with Will, but with her father. That in turn opens the door for conversations about the fact that life doesn't always go as planned and the need for forgiveness when others make mistakes.
In one such conversation, Ronnie has been falsely accused of shoplifting, something she was accused of doing in New York as well. Dad is initially skeptical of her assertion that she's innocent. But Ronnie confesses, "I did it in New York. I stole something. I didn't need you to tell me it's wrong. I know that. But I didn't do it here." Dad's willingness to believe her helps bridge their trust gap.
Another significant part of the storyline revolves around Dad's desire to see Ronnie playing piano again, a talent she's shelved since her parents' divorce. As the film unfolds, we learn that he taught her to play. And so Ronnie's willingness to tickle the ivories again becomes a metaphor for their renewed relationship.
Tests of trust pop up in Ronnie's romance with Will as well. At one point, Ronnie is led to believe that Will's intentions aren't so noble. "I don't want to be the next girl in your parade of girls," she tells him, before he talks her down from that ledge. A significant breach of trust (that involves Will hiding some important information) also results in Ronnie distancing herself from him as she sorts through what to do with his deception. He's deeply sorry for what's happened and Ronnie eventually finds it in her to forgive him.
Elsewhere, Dad spends a lot of time with Jonah as they work on repairing a stained-glass window from a church that's burned down. Ronnie gives Blaze some money after her boyfriend kicks her out of their house. Jonah then gives Ronnie money he's saved so that she can buy a dress to attend a wedding. Ronnie, Jonah and Will work to protect a nest of sea turtle eggs. And Will tries to encourage a friend to take responsibility for accidentally starting the church fire—an incident for which Steve has been unfairly blamed.
[Spoiler Warning] Eventually we learn that Ronnie's father is dying of cancer, a fact that he hides from her and Jonah until he collapses halfway through the summer. Whether that fact should have been concealed is open to debate (and Ronnie certainly doesn't think he should have hidden it). But Steve's motive was a noble one: to spend his last summer with his children without his terminal illness being the focal point of their time together. In the end, Ronnie cares for her father through his final days and offers a poignant tribute at his funeral.
The stained-glass window that Dad and Jonah are working on pictures angels. The window is eventually installed in the church. A couple conversations in the church reflect Dad's generic belief in life after death.
Once the flames of romance between Ronnie and Will begin to flare, there's kissing. And more kissing. Seven or eight lip-lock sessions in total, several of which are passionate and drawn out. But when Ronnie and Will spend a night on the beach in lawn chairs guarding turtle eggs, Dad draws a line in the sand in between them. Will replies, "Yes sir, I understand, sir."
Blaze and Marcus make out on the beach. While there's no explicit groping, they're still using their hands a fair amount. And we know that they're living together. Marcus touches Ronnie's arm while Blaze is elsewhere, then tries to pull her to himself. Ronnie responds, "Don't ever touch me again."
Two beach volleyball games involve shirtless guys. Will's shirt comes off in a couple other scenes as well. As for Ronnie, swimming and beach scenes show her bare midriff and cleavage (though she generally wears a T-shirt over her swimming suit). A flirtatious mud fight between Ronnie and Will ends with the pair using a garden hose to clean each other up. Will's again seen sans shirt, and Ronnie's bra is visible beneath her wet shirt. Indeed, Ronnie has a penchant for bra-revealing outfits. And she stuffs a bit of padding down the front of a dress that she tries on. Other girls in bikinis are seen on the beach.
Jonah says that Ronnie has PMS, which he thinks stands for "p‑‑‑ed at men syndrome."
A melee involves Will defending both Ronnie and Blaze from Marcus. Marcus comes at Will with a crowbar, but Will gets the best of him in the intense scuffle that follows, landing four or five savage punches.
We see an unconscious man being pulled out of a burning building by firemen.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is taken in vain a handful of times. Vulgarities include one or two uses each of "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑" and "p‑‑‑ed."
Drug and Alcohol Content
At a beach party, Blaze and Marcus have been drinking. (She's tipsy and her speech is slurred.) When she grabs another beer from a cooler and asks if Ronnie wants one, Ronnie replies that she doesn't drink. Blaze questions her on this conviction, and Ronnie says even more bluntly, "I just don't drink."
Later, Marcus pesters Blaze for money she owes him; Blaze has bags under her eyes and seems strung out, and it's not a stretch to conclude that she and Marcus could be doing drugs and that she owes him money for that habit.
Will mentions friends getting drunk at a party. Adults drink champagne at a wedding.
Millions of young fans know her best as the Disney sensation Hannah Montana. But like all teen sensations before her, Miley Cyrus is growing up (whether she or her fans want this to happen or not). And like many of those who've gone before her, Miley's trying to figure out how best to accomplish that task in the public eye.
The journey hasn't been without controversy, be it questionable photos in Vanity Fair or her eyebrow-raising pole-dancing performance at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards. Miley's still talking about her relationship with Jesus and says that she understands her influence, but she's also made some choices that have undermined her role-model status.
All of which leads to this question: What kinds of roles will Miley take when she steps out of Hannah's teenage shoes and into those of a young woman?
The Last Song forms the first part of the answer. And it is, on balance, positive, perhaps in part because of the influence of the film's screenwriter, Nicholas Sparks.
Sparks, you may remember, is the storyteller behind the hit novels (and subsequent film adaptations) The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, Dear John and A Walk to Remember. Plugged In recently talked with Sparks about how that last movie in particular served as a template of sorts for this one.
"[Miley] had a two-movie deal with Disney, [and] the first one was going to be the Hannah Montana movie," Sparks said. "But then when they were talking to her, she said she'd really love to do something like A Walk to Remember. The next thing you know, Disney's talking to the director of A Walk to Remember, and they call me and ask if I have anything. And I say, 'No, not really.' But I was thinking about doing a story anyway about a teenage girl. So I talked a little bit to Miley about the things she wanted and didn't want. … From there I just sat down and tried to come up with the most interesting story I could."
The resulting tale deals honestly with themes of love and loss. It underscores the damaging cost of divorce as well as the healing power of a patient, present father. Ronnie Miller's refusal to drink and her determination not to repeat poor choices are also admirable. And when Ronnie and Will choose to "do the right thing," as Sparks says, "you're left with a real strong sense of hopefulness."
Hannah Montana fans may be a bit surprised by how much their heroine smooches her "prince" in this film. And a handful of mild profanities aren't something you're likely to hear on her Disney sitcom either. In that sense, The Last Song isn't without some issues that parents will have to decide if their kids are ready to navigate.
Still, by today's increasingly racy standards—even in teen fare—Miley's first step into the post-Hannah movie world isn't likely to stir things up too much. Instead, she's made a strong contribution to a movie that embodies the value of family and forgiveness—important lessons no matter how old you are.
A postscript: In his interview with us, Sparks also talked about how his Catholic faith influences his approach to storytelling. And in the case of The Last Song, there's more spiritual material in the novel than we see in the film. On that subject, Sparks said, "I'm comfortable writing about faith or having characters with faith. In the novel, Steve's journey is not only to reconnect with his children, but to literally experience the presence of God. That's what his journey is all about."
Read "Nicholas Sparks' Stories, Songs and Salvation," our interview with The Last Song's screenwriter.