March 27, 2010


Miley Cyrus puts in a solid performance in the prolific novelist Nicholas Sparks' latest book-to-film offering: "Last Song." There's something genuine about this not-quite-sure-of-herself-yet, husky-voiced, sassy country girl singer-actress. In "Last Song," Ronnie's (Miley Cyrus) parents are divorced, and she and her little brother are spending the summer with their Dad (with whom Ronnie shares an exquisite musical talent). Only she hasn't forgiven her father (played with nuance by Greg Kinnear) for the break-up, and so has given up on music. Ronnie is real hard on her Dad. Real hard.

Ronnie makes some new friends, including a beau named Will (Miley's now real-life boyfriend, Aussie Liam Hemsworth). So much of "Last Song" looks and feels like "Dear John": the hunky blonde, the seaside summer romance, rich parents with expectations of a different match for their child, etc., etc. But it's a formula we like and a formula that works. (Channing Tatum was a better actor than Amanda Seyfried in "Dear John," and Miley is a better actor than Liam in "Last Song.")

Ronnie is righteous. Almost too righteous. Her unswerving commitment to justice can burn even those she loves. The message of this film—in contrast—is: "Nobody's perfect, we all make mistakes." Over and over again. The film doth protest too much! At a certain point it sounds like making excuses.* And it sounds like just generalized excusisization, not just about the divorce. It is said in the film that love is a "fragile thing" that we just hope lasts. I understand that 1,000,000 things can go wrong between man and woman, but I don't believe that love in general (of which marriage is the core and epitome) is fragile because love is not just a whimsical feeling that comes and goes. It is attraction, sympathy, friendship and a commitment of the will. "Love is strong as death" (Song of Songs 8:6). Please note which book of the Bible that's from. How apropos.

Part of Nicholas Sparks' genius is that he has something for everyone. The little brother (played by Bobby Coleman) is an astonishing little actor and quite the comedian (as are many in this next generation of thespians! They're a bumper crop!) His tears were so real and he looked so distraught that he kind of acted everyone else under the table (without overacting). As in "Dear John," everyone's perspective, everyone's story is given a full hearing, everyone in the audience can relate to at least one of the characters. Sparks seems to be offering healing for relationships, healing for families through his tales. He creates webs of love and forgiveness. There's a sweetness and cordiality to his characters' interactions that are almost instructive. "Life is what you make it," is what his stories seem to say. "It doesn't have to be this bad, this harsh." "Just have a little courage." Sparks is a master at small dramatic, romantic moments. Just Ronnie and Will taking turns stealing glances at each other is like a sonatina.

The visuals are a smorgasbord: mud fights, sea turtles, piano playing, stained glass making, volleyball, trying on dresses. Again, something for everyone.

The dialogue and scenes, for the most part, are to-the-point, not idle, believable, amusing and well-calibrated. Just what we need to know, then a twist and on to the next thing. Some of the dialogue is throwaway and expected. When Ronnie finally lets down her guard with Will, she quickly throws it back up again because she is afraid she is just one of many to him. Will begins feeding her the lamest lines which she doesn't buy and so he just shuts her up by passionately kissing her and all is well again. There are lots of little scenes to deliver us bits of information and make sure we're tracking. There are some rather stretched out saccharine scenes that the audience in my cinema didn't seem to mind. They only whooped and hollered at what they LIKED. (I've noticed that free screenings seem to bring out the whoops and hollers.) News of a super-tragic death suddenly drops like a bomb to add some gravitas (which almost made me laugh, but then I would have been the only one in the theater laughing).

Maybe audiences eat up the slight melodrama and schmaltzy moments because it's actually something new for them (although it harkens back to "old movies"). We don't see/hear any of these tender things in movies any more, and I think we're starved for it! Another incredible feat Sparks has accomplished is that women AND men like his love stories and they watch them together--just like the "old days."

We do a lot of skits in the convent. One was "I'm Only Human!" about all the excuses we could make for ourselves. Ha ha ha.


Q: You seem to be single-handedly saving the love story genre. WHAT IS YOUR SECRET???

A: There's really no secret. I write stories for myself, for my readers. Something everyone will enjoy. I try to always write something better than anything I've ever done.

Q: Why do you think even TEEN BOYS like your movies?

A: Because they're GOOD STORIES! They can relate to them. It's their own experiences, which makes the story feel more real. Or at least you'll know someone like that. Or some girl like that. And I let them know what that girl is thinking!

Q: Why did you choose the romance genre to write in?

A: I write love stories, not romances. They can be kind of sad subjects. My first novel was "The Notebook," which was inspired by my wife's grandparents. It did so well that I figured: if it ain't broke, don't fix it, keep going.

Q: What's your creative process? Where do you get all your ideas? You seem to have so many!

A: Well, I do have a lot of ideas, but most of them are bad! Ha ha. I get 10,000 ideas and have to discard most of them. Some sequences of ideas just feel right. Yes, sequences of ideas. I'm always thinking of my next story. It needs to feel fresh. It takes me four to five months to write a story, then one month to edit it. I keep asking myself about the characters: Is she 17 or 30? What difference would that make?

Q: So the characters don't come to you fully formed?

A: No. I keep working with them. Sometimes I know one or two things about them that I know is intuitively correct, but the rest comes later. Like I didn't know right away that Ronnie reads Tolstoy.

Q: What are your inspirations as a writer?

A: I read a lot: novels, non-fiction. My family is also my inspiration.

Q: I know that some fiction authors don't read fiction while they're writing fiction….

A: Oh, no! Not me! I could never do that. I love to read. Reading is my passion. I read all the time.

Q: How does faith inform your writing if at all? [Sparks is Catholic]

A: A lot. When you're writing a love story, the characters can't be together. You have to find a reason to keep them apart. The easiest reason is that one character is married, and I'll never write adultery in (or profanity). I put in explicit faith if it's integral to the story, like in "A Walk to Remember."

Q: But you do put in pre-marital sex, like in "Dear John." Why?

A: Because nobody's perfect. I won't put in sex between teens, though. Only when they're older.

Q: You make writing sound so simple! But it's hard to write simple.

A: Thank you. That's sweet.

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