With Zac Efron, Charlie Tahan, Amanda Crew, Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta. Directed by Burr Steers. Rated PG-13 for language including some sexual references, an intense accident scene and some sensuality. 100 minutes.
We’ve seen several romantic tearjerkers this year but CHARLIE ST. CLOUD is different. While it shares some of the plot contrivances of movies like “Dear John” and “Remember Me,” it has a level of emotional truth that ultimately eluded those other films. Sure the story requires as much a suspension of belief as any special effects extravaganza, but the feelings being expressed ring true. If this isn’t the breakthrough film “High School Musical” veteran Zac Efron has been waiting for, it ought to at leas convince the naysayers that he’s in it for the long haul.
Efron is the title character who, at the film’s start, is defined by two things: his love for sailing and his love for his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie graduates from high school and is off to a party when his mother (Kim Basinger in a cameo role) tells him she’s working an extra shift and he has to take care of Sam. When he takes Sam along to the party, they are in a car accident – through no fault of Charlie – and Sam dies.
Several years pass. Charlie has never gotten over the death of his beloved little brother and has given up his college career (on a sailing scholarship!) to take a job at the local cemetery. Every day at sunset he meets the spirit of Sam, keeping the promise he had made to him on the day of the fatal accident. Several people tell Sam that it’s time to take his life off hold, but he feels that would be betraying the love he had for his brother. Even a chance meeting with the EMT (Ray Liotta in another cameo) who saved his life isn’t enough to shake him up.
What changes everything is the return of Tess (Amanda Crew), a high school classmate preparing for a global sailing competition. Charlie hasn’t been able to go back on the water, but his love for sailing has never left him. Will Tess be the one to bring Charlie back to life? Well, of course, but not in the way you might expect, and therein lies the core of “Charlie St. Cloud.” Whether you buy the contrivance that drives the last part of the film is a matter of taste. If you are a romantic, you’ll go along for the ride. If you’re a cynic, you probably shouldn’t be here in the first place.
What makes the film work is Efron’s solid performance as the wounded young man. You never feel he’s going through the motions because that’s what the plot requires of him. By the time he has to decide whether he’s going to live his own life or consider it ended in the accident that took his brother’s life, you feel his pain. The plot may be a stretch, but the raw emotions are not and Efron is up for the task.
In many ways this is a film for the young actors with Basinger, Liotta and Donal Logue, as Tess’s coach, just there to offer brief support. Crew is a young Canadian actress with a number of credits, but this may give her career the boost that her previous roles did not, while Tahan is a standout as Sam. Whether he will weather a transition from child to adult actor remains to be seen.
“Charlie St. Cloud” is the sort of movie usually dismissed as a “chick flick,” with young women going to drool over Efron and shed a few tears. That they will and they will enjoy doing so. However guys manly enough to be able to confess to having an emotional life may find that seeing this with someone they love may work out just fine.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.