by KYW’s Bill Wine
Teen/tween heartthrob or not, Zac Efron takes another step in the direction of artistic credentialing and legitimate superstardom.
In the supernatural romantic drama, Charlie St. Cloud, the enormously talented Efron plays the title character, survivor of a tragic automobile accident that claimed the life of his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), at age 11, in their small New England town.
Charlie’s struggle with his grief and guilt are such that he turns down a sailing scholarship to Stanford University and, instead, takes a job as the caretaker at the cemetery in which his brother is buried and, each night, confronts his ghost. They talk, they play catch, they make promises to one another.
Charlie assures Sam, for example, that he will show up here every day at the same time. Also that he will honor a promise he made when Sam was alive: to play baseball with him every day until he leaves for college. He also swears that he will never leave him behind, as their father did.
Then Charlie meets Tess (Amanda Crew), an avid yachtswoman planning a trip around the world that would, if Charlie were to accompany her, take him away and break his promise to his late brother.
Director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) also directed Efron in last year’s uneven comedy, 17 Again, in which Efron soared above the material. Steers steers both his handsomely shot film and leading man Efron in the right direction, taking a tricky central conceit that, while it very well might have played better on the page than on the screen, is still adroitly and admirably handled.
Oh, the director surely exploits Efron’s eye-candy popularity with his core audience with a preponderance of closeups, an understandable impulse, but at least it’s not at the expense of narrative momentum or characterization. This approach does, however, keep the other characters from registering as more than just satellites orbiting around Efron, including Kim Basinger as his hard-working single mother and Ray Liotta as the paramedic who pulled him from the wreck when he flatlined and revived him.
The screenplay by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick, adapted from the 2005 Ben Sherwood novel, “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” borrows a paranormal echo or two from The Sixth Sense without quite cribbing, and manages to include just enough casual humor to help raise the proceedings above the teen-weepie level.
As for Efron, an absolute natural, the trajectory of his recent movie career — Hairspray, Me and Orson Welles, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, 17 Again — has done nothing to obscure his triple-threat status as a real-thing singer-dancer-actor. It’s just the last of his three skills that’s on display in CSC. But, more than just a superficial star turn, it’s a demanding role and an unmistakable demonstration that he has not only charm and charisma, but gravitas as well.
This will certainly not end up being the best screen work Efron has ever done, but it’ll do for now. And some.
Which is why we’ll becloud 3 stars out of 4. Zac Efron is the silver lining in Charlie St. Cloud, which, it turns out, is a sensitive and solid enough fantasy-drama not to need one.