I should know by now that anything to which Nicholas Sparks is attached will guarantee an increase in the stock value of Kleenex. A world class novelist, the mere mention of some of his most cherished works, “The Notebook”, “Dear John”, “Message in a Bottle”, “Nights in Rodanthe” and “The Wedding”, bring tears to the eyes on recalling the indelible and deep emotion of the stories, the characters and the film adaptations. And now, not only does Sparks give us another emotional heartwrencher with THE LAST SONG, but does so by making this not only his first screenplay, but the first time the screenplay has preceded the writing of his actual novel.
Ronnie Miller is your average American teenager but with a slightly dark, bad edge. The product of a broken home, Ronnie lives in Manhattan with her mother and younger brother. Using her parents’ divorce as an excuse for her bad attitude and bad behavior, which includes shoplifting violations, Ronnie proves a handful for her mother. Her brother, Jonah, is also a challenge thanks to his penchant for precociousness. But with summer vacation in full swing, mom decides it time for Ronnie and Jonah to spend some time with their father at his seaside home in Georgia. Jonah is all for the vacay with Dad. Ronnie on the other hand greets the trip and her father with more anger and hatred than a trip to the dentist. Miserable to a fault, it’s clear that Ronnie intends to do everything she can to aggravate and ignore her father.
But, surprise, surprise. Things aren’t all that bad in this quaint little town by the sea. There are carnivals and boardwalks, street vendors on the beach, sea turtles that need protection, teens her own age, a gorgeous hunk of a guy named Will. For Jonah, there’s also plenty to do as he becomes his father’s right hand man in making a stained glass window for the local church which had been destroyed in a fire.
As summer unfolds, life not in the fast lane begins to take hold of Ronnie, as does Will. An animal activist, Ronnie assumes the responsibility of saving a nest of sea turtle eggs, showing a caring nurturing side of herself that obviously spawns from her own feeling of abandonment by her father. And as it turns out, Will works at the local aquarium with animal preservation, giving the two a basis to start their own somewhat rocky romance dance. Days go by and life gets better and brighter for Ronnie, who even starts happily spending some time with her dad (in between that with Will, of course). But, as to be expected, that happiness is to be short lived.
Miley Cyrus tackles the role of Ronnie and I must say, this is a Miley we haven’t seen before. Gone is the Hannah Montana blonde wig and pink color palette (According to Cyrus, “one [wig] will be in a museum and one will be burned”). Before us is a Cyrus with a new maturity and a slightly deeper emotional layer. She totally surprised me. And it's wonderful to see her act with someone playing her parent rather than her own father. Her interactions with Greg Kinnear are wonderfully honest and true. She holds her own with more difficult material, buoyed by veterans like Kinnear and Kelly Preston. However, she needs to work a little more on her emotional depth when it comes to sadness and welling up those tears (I think she could take lessons from many of us who were watching the film), but in terms of being a moody, conflicted teen at odds with dad, finding a first love, struggling to find her own voice and herself, and facing loss, she was right on point. “You have to go deeper than [crying] and realize what it’s going to be like when you are watching an hour and a half film. You don’t just want to see one type of emotion. You want to see her getting through it, putting up her guard and trying to have strength.” And while the character doesn’t focus on singing or performing, an important part of Ronnie is the fact she is a child prodigy piano player, which also serves as the common bond with her father. Requiring Cyrus to take “two piano lessons”, she describes her playing as “started out kind of messy, but I got better and better. By the end of the movie, I think I actually had the song down.” Beyond the music, the key to her identification with Ronnie were the animals. “The animals were really cool. There were things that were a little bit of me within the character, but it was also really different but I think the music was probably the main thing that I related to.”
Making his feature film debut as Will is another hunk from Down Under, Liam Hemsworth. A former soap actor in Australia, Hemsworth had no fears about making the leap to the big screen - or working with Cyrus. His greatest fear and challenge , however, was the fact that Will is an outstanding beach volleyball player. “Volleyball was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Before we started shooting, they asked me, ‘Do you play volleyball?,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ And, I turned up for the first day of volleyball practice and I was honestly really scared to shoot the volleyball part because it takes a lot of skills to play that game and I didn’t have them, at all.” Strong and commanding in his own right, he has a lightness and ease dealing with strong emotional material. One of the wonderful aspects of THE LAST SONG is watching the undeniable chemistry develop between Hemsworth and Cyrus. Paired with Cyrus, their relationship is beyond believable, something that has since played out in real life for them.
When it comes to Bobby Coleman’s performance as Jonah, be aware that he steals every scene from everyone. His comedic timing is perfect. His emotions are pure. His reactions emotionally driven. And Greg Kinnear , what’s not to love about him. As Steve Miller he brings genuine heartfelt emotion to the role and the project as a whole. His performance is glorious. And he also not only learned to play the piano, but learned the art of stained glass.
As comes as no surprise, Nicholas Sparks hits another emotional homerun with THE LAST SONG. Personally, I believe this is his best work. Beautifully bittersweet and tender, Sparks calls on events that have transformed his own life. Never ceasing to amaze me with his passion and depth of feeling, with THE LAST SONG he faced a new challenge. “The main challenge of Ronnie’s character was not being a 17 year old girl. That I can do. It was being an angry 17 year old girl and yet you had to make her likeable. Otherwise you can’t go 20 minutes into a movie. If you don’t like the character, you’re not going to watch the movie. If you don’t like the character in the book, you’re not going to finish reading it. So, how do you make her be angry and yet, show these touches of humanity so that you say, ‘yeah, you’re still pretty good underneath.’ She doesn’t drink. She’s not necessarily friendly to her father but she comes him. She’s really nice to her younger brother. You try to show these flashes of humanity. It’s more of a veneer.” Interestingly, for the novel, the hardest character to write was Steve. “Steve is a very passive character and I’m not a passive person. He was a very challenging character. And then again, of course, he had to have his own journey which he was working through.” Adding layers to the story are multiple integral subplots and environmental issues that are key to emotional plot development.
After speaking with her at length, Julie Ann Robinson is definitely on my radar as a director to watch. Her passion and joy for the filmmaking process and storytelling is uplifting. Making her feature debut, her direction is fluid and steady, running at an easy pace. Although when tapped for the assignment Sparks had yet to complete the script, “I think I had a very clear vision for the movie that I wanted to make. I was very supported by the execs at Disney. They wanted me to bring that indie film, edgy sensibility to the film.” Working hand in hand with cinematographer John Lindley, Robinson’s use of long shots and wide shots goes far in helping to further Sparks’ emotional tone of the story. Encouraged by producer Adam Shankman to “give a sense of space to the movie”, “I wanted to place emotions in the context of the island and make [characters] feel lost and alone”, particularly with one scene involving Jonah staring out at the water which for Robinson “is one of my favorite shots.” “I try to tell a story with the camera as well as telling a story with the actors” as is evidenced with the breathtaking calm of the eddys, rivers and lakes balanced against the fury of the ocean, all analogous to the emotion of the story. And Lindley’s cinematography is absolutely stunning.
Difficult enough for seasoned veterans, Robinson also faced environmental challenges with THE LAST SONG. Shot on the exquisite Tybee Island off the Georgia coast, the coastline is environmentally protected which means caution at every turn for a filmmaker. “As a community of filmmakers we wanted to be respectful of the island as much as we could. Every time we wanted to walk on a dune we would have to get permission from the Agency and sometimes we would have to make pathways through the dune. Those are protected areas. We even built our own dunes which helped with camera angles.” So perfect in their environmental creation, the dunes were permitted to remain as part of the natural terrain after filming. An added difficulty was the weather. “The thunderstorms and tropical rainstorms we were contending with almost every day near the end. Then jellyfish in the water.”
And Robinson can also add the title of “turtle wrangler” to her resume with this shoot. “Nobody thought we could do it. We had a turtle wrangler named Mark who said ‘Julie Ann, I can bring you some baby turtles so you can shoot the scene.’ Everybody was skeptical, from people back at Disney, my First AD, the producer. ‘Oh, we’re going to have to CGI these turtles.’ On this one day, we got a call from Mark, ‘We’ve got the baby turtles. You can shoot with the baby turtles.’ I so much wanted them to be the real turtles so you could have a real emotional reaction from the actors to seeing these little guys. It was tricky to shoot because the turtles only go into the ocean at nighttime. We had to shoot at dusk so we only had a 15 minute window to shoot. We shot over four nights. The turtles are preprogrammed to walk towards the water. And we weren’t allowed to have any artificial light on the turtles because they are attracted by the glinting lights of the ocean. In terms of filmmaking it was a tricky exercise. The turtles would agree to do probably only 3 takes and then we would scoop them all up and then put them in the ocean ourselves. It was so moving. And then Miley jumped in the ocean with her whole dress on because she was so overwhelmed.”
A story of life, death, transition, growth and above all, love of family, it is impossible not to be swept into the emotion and heart of THE LAST SONG. And may I say right now ladies - and guys - before you walk into the theater, have boxes of tissues in hand and waterproof mascara in place.
Ronnie Miller - Miley Cyrus
Steve Miller - Greg Kinnear
Will Blakelee - Liam Hemsworth
Jonah Miller - Bobby Coleman
Directed by Julie Ann Robinson. Written by Nicholas Sparks.