Charlie St. Cloud, an enjoyably moist ghost story, follows a high school hotshot haunted by an error of judgment that casts a long, gloomy shadow on a once-bright future.
Charlie (Zac Efron), a townie in a New England hamlet (in Ben Sherwood's novel on which the film is based, it was the seaside village of Marblehead, Mass.), is a championship sailor. His kid brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), serves as his first mate.
Despite the brothers' skills, the rich boys look down on the St. Clouds. Their dad has disappeared; their mom (Kim Basinger) is a nurse who works double shifts to support them. The girls, however, look at them with starry eyes. So, too, does cinematographer Enrique Chediak, who for reasons pertaining to the plot, shoots them in the glowing magic-time of dusk.
After tragedy strikes, Charlie is adrift in his own private Bermuda Triangle. In this gentle fable, Charlie moves from living among the dead to living with the living.
Director Burr Steers, who helmed (no pun intended) Efron in the charming body-switch comedy 17 Again, shrouds the film with a guilt-edged melancholy that evokes the atmosphere of Ghost and The Sixth Sense. How, without dishonoring the departed, does Charlie move past grief to acceptance?
Initially, putting the high-wattage Efron on a dimmer seems like a tragic waste of natural resources, comparable to brown contact lenses on Paul Newman's baby blues. But Steers takes his time and it pays off in Efron's subdued performance, earnest and yearning. (The same cannot be said of the low-angle shots of the backlit Efron, heroically framed against the horizon more like a generic GQ model than a specific character.)
Steers' film, which advocates grieving and growing rather than remaining stuck in mourning limbo, is an unapologetically schmaltzy affair, enormously effective on heartstrings and tear ducts.
The byplay between Efron and newcomer Tahan as his brother has a warmth and intimacy that establish the film's tone. The performances carry the film.
As boozy Alistair, Charlie's outspoken coworker at a cemetery, Augustus Prew supplies the comic relief. In the equivalent of Whoopi Goldberg's role in Ghost - or Thomas Lennon's in 17 Again - Prew nails every punchline. Similarly, Amanda Crew as Tess, a competitive sailor preparing an around-the-world voyage, is touching as Charlie's female counterpart. While the vealcake shots of the shirtless Efron do not advance the story, for the most part the filmmakers explore the faces of the young actors, searching, as they are, for answers to the question of why they were put on this earth.