"You can't put life on hold, Charlie. It doesn't wait for you," sagely advises Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta) to 23-year-old Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron). A former EMT now dying of cancer, Florio miraculously saved Charlie's life five years earlier in a car accidenta car accident that tragically killed his 11-year-old brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) and has left the young man, once a talented sailor with a scholarship to Stanford, in a state of inertia. Now a cemetery caretaker in his sleepy Pacific Northwest hometown, Charlie has been unable to move forward and let go of Sam, meeting his ghost like clockwork every day at sunset to play catch with him. Charlie can see other spirits, too, like old high school buddy Sully (Dave Franco), who joined the military after graduation and was killed in the line of duty. Most of them are just passing through on their way to the other side, but Sam has stuck around, he and Charlie vowing to never separate.
If this sounds kind of like a schmaltzy version of "The Sixth Sense
," well, it kind of is, especially as the story develops and key plot points are revealed. For all of its melodrama, though, "Charlie St. Cloud" is lifted above hokum by a keen filmmaker's eye, sincere performances, and dual love stories (one romantic, the other familial) that achieve appropriate bittersweet tendencies. Closed-off and ruminative, the once-outgoing Charlie goes about his lifeworking his day job, playing with Sam in the forest, having drinks at the local barwithout truly living it. That all potentially changes when he meets former classmate Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew), a headstrong type preparing for a six-month solo sail around the world. This is not the time to be falling in love, and yet she and Charlie can't help but sense an almost instant connection with each other. The closer Charlie gets to Tess, however, the more he fears his promise and bond to Sam is slipping away from him.
Based on the novel "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud" by Ben Sherwood, "Charlie St. Cloud" will be a dream come true for the Nicholas Sparks crowd (especially considering that it is more honest and certainly smarter than recent legitimate adaptations "Dear John
" and "The Last Song
"). True to form, the narrative turns will be predictable for anyone paying close attention and overt audience manipulation does begin to drip at times, no thanks to the broad, violin-heavy music score by Rolfe Kent (2010's "Killers
") that too often undermines the emotions by telling us how we are supposed to feel. Nevertheless, Charlie's inability to let go of Sam due to his grief rings true, and so does the quiet, tightly-knit small-town milieu, where everyone knows everyone else and few people can keep their feelings to themselves without others finding out. A scene where Charlie runs into peers from his past at a bar, some of them happy to see him and others mean-spirited in their knowledge of who Charlie was and who he has become, gets just right this experience that often happens a handful of years out of high school.
The brotherly link between Charlie and Sam is effectively set up at the onset and, if one can take the leap that Charlie is genuinely talking to Sam's spirit thereafter (which the audience is supposed to), there is a fair amount of poignancy in the way they discuss the grown-up experiences Sam will never be able to have. As for the picture's other half, centering on the romance between Charlie and Tess, it is arguably even stronger due to the palpable chemistry between its actors. A safely PG-13 sex scene set in a nighttime cemetery is a little strange when you stop to think about it, but otherwise credit is due to director Burr Steers (2002's "Igby Goes Down
") and screenwriters Craig Pearce (2001's "Moulin Rouge!
") and Lewis Colick (2004's "Ladder 49
") for building a relationship between mature twenty-somethings that feels real and is based on shared interests and empathy rather than shallow surfaces and a necessity of the script.
Zac Efron (2009's "17 Again
") impresses with the sensitivity he brings to his title role, even if it is one that might have been deepened more by an actor a few years older and rougher around the ages (in the novel, the character was supposed to be 28). Efron's good looks sometimes come off as too distracting, which may cause trouble for him down the road in his career. Based on talent alone, he's certainly got charisma. As Tess, Amanda Crew (2008's "Sex Drive
") is wonderful, a fresh, always likable presence who enhances every film she's in. This is her most high-profile part to date, and it deserves to be her breakthrough. Charlie Tahan (2008's "Nights in Rodanthe
") is touching in the naturalism he brings to Sam, conveying a loss one senses every time the viewer gazes into his eyes. Less satisfactorily handled is Charlie's British coworker and friend Alistair, played by Augustus Prew (2002's "About a Boy
") as if he's constantly trying out to play Russell Brand's younger brother in an upcoming movie, and Kim Basinger (2009's "The Informers
"), sorely wasted as Charlie's and Sam's working-class mother Claire. Basinger disappears after the first act, is briefly heard in the second act during an answering machine message, and is then promptly forgotten about. Whether or not Basinger's final scene with Efron was left on the cutting room floor, it's a largely mishandled subplot that inadvertently makes Charlie seem uncaring and selfish in his failure to get back in touch with his lonely mom.
Sumptuously photographed by Enrique Chediak (2010's "Repo Men
") with a glorious affection for magic hour, the characters and their surroundings in "Charlie St. Cloud" are forever draped in golden hues and nostalgic halos, all the better to remind audiences of the angelic forces in Charlie's life. Whether they say so or not, they want him to do something, to make something of himself, to grab his talents by the horns and never look back. Charlie's gradual return to the living, aided in his coming to terms with Sam's death and the newfound hope that Tess symbolizes, is pulled off with bittersweet earnestness. Ongoing silliness involving hard-headed geese in the cemetery would have been best kept out of the finished product, and Charlie's ability to see those who have passed away is left undernourished after it is established. Imperfections and all, "Charlie St. Cloud" is a well-made, handsomely shot little tearjerker. It knows who its audience is, and it lives up to those expectations.