Zac Efron has It: that indefinable on-screen charisma, that presence you can’t look away from. So it makes Charlie St. Cloud somewhat less tedious than it might otherwise have been.
Efron is an appealingly morose delight to watch here as a young man trying to find his bearings in life. And this romantic melodrama has a bit more to offer, as well. There aren’t a lot of movies like this, geared for that awkward post-adolescent, pre-grownup stage: Only the Twilight flicks come close, and they come laden with a lot more histrionics and characters it’s hard to like or even to accept as plausible. Not because they’re vampires or werewolves, but because they do not ring true emotionally.
Though Charlie St. Cloud made me roll my eyes more than once, I found it impossible not to fall in love with St. Cloud the character. Because he is genuinely compassionate, genuinely hurting and genuinely endearing. And that’s all because Efron projects real soul in his performance.
Five years ago, Efron’s Charlie was about to head to Stanford on a sailing scholarship. But then his little brother, 10-year-old Sam (Charlie Tahan), was killed in a car accident ... with Charlie was behind the wheel. Charlie is naturally haunted by guilt, but also by the ghost of Sam himself — unaged, of course — whom Charlie meets every day at sunset for a game of catch.
While working a menial groundskeeper’s job at the local cemetery, the townie girls deem Charlie cute but unacceptably weird. But it doesn’t matter, as his life is on hold while he pays daily homage to Sam’s memory and daily penance for his own remorse.
And then Charlie meets Tess (Amanda Crew), a spirited, adventurous gal who entices him as much as she threatens his trapped complacency.
Now, don’t mistake me: Charlie St. Cloud is not a great film. It’s overly earnest and weighed down by an overweening score that wants to drive you toward particular emotions. But in the end, there’s something very moving about Charlie’s plight, and in the poignancy of deciding whether or not to let go of the memories of those we love. It’s a bit of slog getting to that ending, yes, but along the way the film is also at least honest and sincere and old-fashioned in a sweet sort of way.