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The Last Song -- Film Review

The Bottom Line

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Although "The Last Song" is a film Disney Studios certainly hopes every man, woman and child in America goes to see, it's main purpose is to showcase one of the studio's brightest young stars, Miley Cyrus, and to move her beyond Hannah Montana and concert movies into an older, dramatic role.

So the tailor-made movie runs the 17-year-old through a gamut of emotions from anger and love to sorrow and joy. She romps on a beach, has a mud fight, saves baby sea turtles, smooches with a guy and models any number of gowns, even adjusting her breasts in one outfit to emphasize how grown-up she has become.

The movie so deftly mixes sentimentality, romance and bathos in just the right measures that her fans and maybe new ones will enjoy the new Miley. So she might have a hit dramatic movie to add to her smash Disney Channel series and multiplatinum albums.

If publicity notes are to be believed, best-selling author Nicholas Sparks even wrote his novel and screenplay with Cyrus in mind. What more can a girl ask for?

Overseeing the production is first-time feature director Julie Anne Robinson, who has worked in British and American television. She can't do much about the contrivances in the script Sparks wrote with an old friend, Jeff Van Wie. But she gives Cyrus room to display a winning personality and charm.

Sparks' shameless formula is to introduce illness, death or social differences to punch emotional buttons and jerk tears. This is a writer who never trusts his characters to move you without these artificial stimulants -- witness such books-to-movies as "Message in a Bottle," "A Walk to Remember," "The Notebook" and only last month "Dear John."

Cyrus' Ronnie Miller is a teen from a broken home who has internalized her bitterness over her parents' divorce and closed off her emotions. Most of her blame, however, is reserved for her father, Steve (Greg Kinnear). Now she and her kid brother (Bobby Coleman) must spend a summer at his Georgia beachfront house, so she's not happy.

She pouts and ignores Dad for awhile, but a romance with a beach hunk named Will (Liam Hemsworth, nicely hiding his Australian accent) pulls her out of her funk; she even settles down for a heart-to-heart with Dad.

So where's the story going to go if all conflicts and issues are resolved before the midpoint? Ah, that's where Sparks' special formula comes in.

First, Will tells Ronnie about the death of his brother the previous year that shattered his family despite their unimaginable wealth. Then someone -- no spoilers here -- gets sick.

Disney has gone all out to bring its star into her comfort zone. The studio surrounds Cyrus with seasoned pros in Kinnear and Kelly Preston (as her mom), gives her a handsome, almost-too-nice leading man, brings her real mother aboard as executive producer and fills the soundtrack with songs by popular artists, including two songs performed by Cyrus.

The script makes her a gifted pianist, so she doesn't lose that music connection even if she only sings on camera for a few moments. And a message about music and familial love bringing joy to one's life strays not one bit off the Disney reservation. Nor does the hokey story and chaste romance. So mission accomplished.

Opens: Wednesday, March 31 (Disney)