The Last SongIn her dramatic film debut, Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) shows she can act. But The Last Song, opening March 31, is not exactly her movie. The Disney drama is based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose Southern-based stories (The Notebook, Dear JohnNights in Rodanthe) always involve death, grief, young love, and scenes on a beach.

Miley, with her distinctive look and voice, is one of those taste-specific actors, like Stewart or Hepburn (not that she’s in that league), and she might be better suited to comedy or musical fare. Here, in another heart-wrenching Sparks tearjerker built as her vehicle, she’s generally fine, even very good, in most scenes, but at other times she seems forced and anxious. She plays a musical prodigy who is also a troubled child of divorce recently busted for shoplifting. Told by her mom (Kelly Preston) to spend the summer with her dad (Greg Kinnear, in top form) on an island off the coast of Georgia, with younger brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman) tagging along and nearly stealing the movie, she tries to bond with her absent father and possibly re-connect to playing Liszt on the piano.

Subplots encompass arson, church, domestic abuse, dishonesty, rich parents (another Sparks staple) and sea turtles, and it’s too much. But Miley’s bitter, black-booted, nose-pierced brat from New York finally warms up for a handsome local kid (Liam Hemsworth) who, like most of the males in Sparks’ pictures, follows her around like a pup. Amid the first kiss, the mudfight, and scribbling “forever” on a sneaker, something dreadful is bound to happen and it does, though it is not as awful as the long-term self-sacrifice in the recent Sparks release Dear John. Though The Last Song is not an elegy, with an anti-climactic deliverance and strings that come from nowhere, there is goodness in what Sparks, with first-time director Julie Anne Robinson, offers on loss, love, and the joy of being alive.