Zac Efron graduates during an early scene in Charlie St. Cloud. But it’s best you take that literally rather than figuratively – Disney’s former golden boy may have strayed into tear duct-bothering drama with this adaptation of Ben Sherwood’s novel, but he’s not quite shot of the Mouse House yet.
Reuniting with 17 Again director Burr Steers, Efron is the eponymous St. Cloud. Perfect right down to his baby blues and innie belly button, he’s the boat-sailing brother you always dreamed of having: sensible, playful, sensitive. Quids in, then, for younger sibling Sam (Charlie Tahan), who Charlie fauns over like a father (spit-brushing his hair, coaching him in baseball). “God, that boy is just too good!” gripes future love interest Tess (Amanda Crew), and you almost feel her pain.
Fast-forward five years and Charlie’s now totally certifiable. Sam’s been killed in a car crash. Charlie is drifting, talking to dead people and working as a gardener instead of following his dreams. Are his visions of his dearly departed bro’ a result of Charlie’s splintered psyche, or is something altogether more mysterious afoot?
So far so absorbing. Wince-inducing dialogue aside (“We can’t put life on hold, Charlie, it doesn’t wait for us,” advises blink-and-miss mum Kim Basinger early on), Charlie St. Cloud begins brisk and breezy – all Lord of the Rings scenery and brotherly banter. Even the traumatic incident that claims Sam’s life is deftly handled, as Steers allows the crunch of metal and the splatters of blood to hit us right in the face (you’ll be glad it’s not in 3D).
But while this no-holds-barred approach initially works, it soon drives the film into histrionic waters. A third act U-turn feels forced, destabilising the drama that came before, while further squallier happenings at the film’s climax unmoor St. Cloud entirely.
Not that blame can be heaped on Efron. Quite the opposite – the 22-year-old attacks the material fearlessly, offering his most mature performance to date. It’s a definite move in the right direction to complement Me and Orson Welles. Sadly, the dire-logue descends into such tediousness that only plucky Brit Augustus Prew (think Aaron Johnson crossed with Russell Brand) manages to buoy it with his off-kilter cock-er-nee delivery. It’s the kind of ‘listen carefully!’ discourse typical of the very tepid teen flicks that Efron is clearly straining to escape.
Not a total wreck, then, with central younglings Efron, Crew and Prew easily shouldering their dramatic share. But in its desperation to move audience members to tears, Charlie St. Cloud forgets to foster a heart for itself.
Anticipation: Efron ditched the Footloose remake for this. Good sign? 3
Enjoyment: Expansive location shots lend Charlie St. Cloud an elegant aura that’s as easy on the eye as its lovely young stars, but the script needed more of a buff. 2
In Retrospect: Efron excels, proving he’s leading-man material. But sign-post scoring and drill-‘em-home emotional beats weigh things down. Rubbish ending, too. 3