Charlie St. Cloud (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Poor Zac Efron : He's at that awkward stage for movie stars. Without question, he's got "it," that indefinable on-screen charisma, a presence that won't let you turn away. And yes, he can act — he's got more than just a pretty face to his credit. But Hollywood generally doesn't have a lot of options for him while he's stuck in this post-adolescent, but-not-quite-adult phase.
Until he matures a little more into a romantic-comedy leading man or an angsty action-hero type (and the latter might be a stretch no matter his age), his options at this point are college sex comedy or torture-porn horror ... and that's about it, unless someone convinces him that High School Musical: Post Grad! is a good idea.
Efron re-teams here with Burr Steers, who directed the actor in 17 Again, a film that was a throwaway aside from the charming young star's performance. But this romantic melodrama, geared for precisely Efron's uncomfortable age, has a bit more to offer. There's a touch not only of the melodramatic, but also of the fantastical about Charlie St. Cloud, and about Charlie, too.
Just after high school graduation (five years earlier), Charlie was about to head to Stanford on a sailing scholarship. But his little brother, 10-year-old Sam (Charlie Tahan), was killed in a car accident ... an accident in which Charlie was driving. Though the smashup wasn't his fault, and he couldn't have prevented it, Charlie is naturally haunted by guilt. He's also haunted by the ghost of Sam himself, whom Charlie now meets every evening for a game of catch.
You see, Charlie didn't go to Stanford, he's never even left town — he can't, because he promised Sam he'd always be there at sunset. Now he works a groundskeeper's job at the local cemetery, and the townie girls deem him cute but unacceptably weird, as he puts his life on hold to pay daily penance for his own remorse.
Even though Charlie St. Cloud made me roll my eyes more than once, I found it impossible not to fall in love with Efron's Charlie. The character is genuinely compassionate, genuinely hurting and genuinely endearing. And that's all because Efron has real soul on screen. Thanks to his performance, Charlie St. Cloud becomes more than it might otherwise have been; it becomes a chance to bear witness to what could be the birth of a movie star. Efron is an appealingly morose delight as a young man trying to find his bearings in life in the face of tough choices.
Then Charlie meets Tess (Amanda Crew), an adventurous young woman who entices him as much as threatens his trapped complacency. Their romance, though steeped in Charlie's melodrama, also feels genuine and neither denies youthful sexuality nor wraps it in squeamish prudishness. And it doesn't play out in expected ways.
Now, don't mistake me: Charlie St. Cloud is not a great film. Absent Efron's ingratiating performance, it's passably good at best. Though it can be sincere in a sweet, old-fashioned sort of way, it's overly earnest and weighed down by an overweening score that wants to drive you toward particular sentiments. Yet, while it's a bit of a slog to get there, in the end, there's still something moving about Charlie's plight, and in the poignancy of deciding whether or not it's time to let go of the memories of someone we love.