Better Than Twilight!
Poor Zac Efron: he’s at that awkward Movie Star stage. Without question, he’s got It: that indefinable onscreen charisma, that presence you can’t look away from. Does he have a long and varied career as an actor ahead of him? Sure… and yes, he can act — he’s got more than just that distractingly pretty face to his credit. But Hollywood doesn’t have a lot of options for him while he’s stuck in the postadolescent, not-quite-grownup phase. Until he matures a little more into a romantic comedy leading man or an angsty law-enforcement type (and the latter might be a stretch no matter his age), his options at this point are college sex comedy, torture porn horror… and that’s about it, unless someone can convince him that High School Musical: Post Grad! is a good idea. And I hope they can’t.
So it makes Charlie St. Cloud somewhat less tedious than it might otherwise have been: It’s kinda fun to bear witness to the birth of a future movie star, and Efron is an appealingly morose delight to watch here as a young man trying to find his bearings in life in the face of some tough choices that no young person should have to make. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) previously directed Efron in 17 Again with the end result being that his charming young star was the only reason to check out that otherwise throwaway flick. But this romantic melodrama, geared for precisely the uncomfortable age Efron (Me and Orson Welles, Hairspray) is at, has a bit more to offer, as well. There aren’t a lot of movies like this: only the Twilight flicks come close, and they come laden with a lot more histrionics and with 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.
Charlie, on the other hand… even though Charlie St. Cloud — based on the novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud by Ben Sherwood [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — made me roll my eyes more than once, I found it impossible not to fall in love with Charlie St. Cloud. Because he is genuinely compassionate, genuinely hurting, and genuinely endearing. And that’s all because Efron has real soul onscreen.
There is a touch of the fantastical about Charlie, too, and about Charlie. See, five years ago, just after high school graduation, Efron’s Charlie — poor but happy in the Pacific Northwest — was about to head to Stanford on a sailing scholarship. But then his little brother, 10-year-old Sam (Charlie Tahan: I Am Legend), 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… and also by the ghost of Sam himself, unaged, of course, whom Charlie now meets every day at sunset for a game of catch. Charlie didn’t go to Stanford, has never even left town — he can’t, you see, because he promised Sam he’d be there every day at sunset. Now he works a menial groundskeeper’s job at the local cemetery, the townie girls deem him cute but unacceptably weird, and 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: The Haunting in Connecticut, Final Destination 3), a spirited, adventurous gal — so unlike Twilight’s pathologically vapid Bella Swan — and she entices him as much as she threatens his trapped complacency. Their romance, though it is perforce wrapped up Charlie’s melodrama, is also genuine, one that neither denies youthful sexuality nor wraps it in squeamish prudishness. And it doesn’t play out in any expected way.
Now, don’t mistake me: Charlie St. Cloud is not a great film. Absent Efron’s ingratiating performance, it’s passably good at best. It’s overly earnest and weighed down by an overweening score that wants to drive you toward particular sentiments that we don’t need that overweening score to feel. 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 is also at least honest and sincere and old-fashioned in a sweet sort of way, as romantic melodramas go.