GIVEN MILEY CYRUS' position as Disney's reigning sweet-tea sweetheart, on paper she's the perfect starlet for novelist Nicholas Sparks' first venture as a screenwriter. Both Cyrus and Sparks sell images of down-home country folk, little girls selling lemonade to firefighters, and other simple images that would make Norman Rockwell's dick hard.

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It's surprising, then, that Cyrus is easily the weakest part of Sparks' latest Southern sobfest, The Last Song. As a girl stuck in Georgia for the summer with her semi-estranged father (Greg Kinnear), Miley puts on her angsty face (read: squinting). Kinnear is sincere and believable as a well-intentioned screwup, but Miley's not listening: She tromps down the beach in boots, glowering at the girls around her in swimsuits. As her love interest (Liam Hemsworth) notes, "The ice cube act isn't working." It feels like an eternity before Cyrus' transformation into her perky Hannah Montana self. (Oh, did I mention she's also a music prodigy that Julliard accepted without her even applying? Natch, she's too angsty to go.)

Like other films based on the seemingly endless parade of Sparks novels (Dear John, The Notebook, A Walk to Remember), The Last Song is a minefield of manipulative circumstances its characters must cross before they reach their inevitable reconciliations. Sparks draws liberally from a grab bag of complications to give his stories momentum—a crippling accident here, a terminal illness there—because without them, his flat characters would have nothing to say to one another. How to make Hemsworth's rich, athletic, and charming aquarium volunteer interesting? I dunno. Throw in a family tragedy! It's a cheap trick, which doesn't ever stop The Last Song from using it again and again.

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