This lightweight but reasonably effective tear-jerker casts Zac Efron (ME AND ORSON WELLES) as the titular Charlie St. Cloud, a young man who, as the saying goes, sees dead people. Although the supernatural element is used mostly as a metaphor for being haunted by the ghosts of one’s past, CHARLIE ST. CLOUD ultimately comes across like an M. Night Shyamalan pastiche cross-bred with a Harlequin romance and targeted toward the teen and young adult crowd, particularly women who prefer romance over scares.
Small town boy Charlie St. Cloud seems to have it made – charm, boating skills, a loving family relationship with his mother and brother, and most of all a bright future at Stanford that should provide a path to success in the big city. This last element is a source of concern for younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), who fears that Charlie will disappear from his life, just as dad did years ago. Charlie eases Sam’s fears by promising to practice baseball with him every day until he leaves for college. Unfortunately, while driving to a friend’s house, Charlie and Sam are struck by another car; after a brief near-death experience, Charlie is revived by paramedic Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta), but Sam dies. Burdened by survivor’s guilt, Charlie keeps his baseball practice appointment and is only mildly surprised to see Sam show up. Five years later, Charlie is working in the town’s graveyard, Stanford long forgotten; he keeps his daily appointment with Sam – almost the only social activity in his life, until his interest is captured by Tess (Amanda Crew), a young woman planning to sail around the world solo.
CHARLIE ST. CLOUD is obviously intended as an uplifting movie about overcoming tragedy and moving on with one’s life; the film teeters on the brink of bathos, without ever quite falling in. Yes, the CGI-enhanced skylines lend a storybook quality to the film’s look, but they also create a world in which the presence of ghosts is less obtrusive; yes, the musical choices are eccentric at best, with upbeat songs shoe-horned into the soundtrack as if to insist that Charlie is not really a gloomy person, even though he has a live-in job at a cemetery and interacts with almost no one but his dead brother, but there is just enough underlying bitterness to prevent viewers from overdosing on saccharine sweetness.
That bittersweet quality is felt most keenly in the relationship between Charlie and Sam, which is laced with underlying resentment: Charlie refuses to let go of Sam emotionally, but he also resents Sam for holding him back; Sam, meanwhile, resents Charlie’s resentment, accusing his older brother of secretly yearning to leave him behind, especially after Charlie becomes interested in Tess.
After a first act that effectively sets the stage, CHARLIE ST. CLOUD settles into a too-measured pace meant to convey the stasis of Charlie’s life. The character is a bit too wrapped up in himself, too precious about holding onto his grief, and too passive to fully engage us. Florio, the paramedic who pulled Charlie back from the grave, is surprised to see the young man wasting his second chance by spending his life literally among the dead, and we are forced to agree. Fortunately, Efron is charismatic enough as an actor to hold our attention and our sympathy, even when we start to feel that Charlie needs a good swift kick to snap him out of his bad mood.
Things pick up when Tess goes missing while trying out her new boat. At this point,the focus shifts away from grieving to the suggestion made by Florio that there must be a reason for Charlie’s resurrection. Rather like Shyamalan’s SIGNS, at this point CHARLIE ST. CLOUD lays out message that things happen for a reason, and even tragedies can have silver linings. Charlie’s sixth sense gives him a clue to Tess’s possible whereabouts, but when the search goes on longer than expected, Charlie’s commitment to finding the lost woman requires missing his daily appointment with Sam. The dilemma is cleverly encapsulated in the dialogue, when Charlie’s co-worker Alistair (the charming Augustus Prew) asks Charlie whether he intends to go back or move on – a question that applies not only to the present emergency but also to Charlie’s life in general.
There are a few mis-steps along the way, which we are obviously not supposed to question in the midst of being inspired by the uplifting love story. At one point, Charlie physically interacts with another character on a rather intimate level, only to realize later that the person was present only in spirit – the only indication that Charlie is not able to tell the living from the dead at a glance. The script also makes a major miscalculation in portraying Sam’s death as the result of a car accident; since the opening scenes go to considerable length to depict Charlie as a daredevil sailor who takes too many risks, the logical route would have been for Sam to die in a boating accident caused by his brother – which would have given Charlie more reason for feeling guilty.
Nevertheless, for all of its obvious calculations, CHARLIE ST. CLOUD is sincere and effective enough in its intentions to win over at least a few cynical hearts. Although it is no match for THE SIXTH SENSE or SIGNS, it is comes across better and less contrived than Shyamalan’s recent work, and as a love story tinged with supernatural overtones, it is much more charming and much less lazy in execution than THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE
CHARLIE ST. CLOUD (July 30, 2010). Directed by Burr Steers. Screenplay by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick, based on the novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud by Ben Sherwood. Music by Rolfe Kent. Cinematography by Enrique Chediak. Cast: Zac Efron, Charlie Tahan, Amanda Crew, Augustus Prew, Donal Logue, Kim Basinger, Ray Liotta, Dave Franco, Matt ward, Miles Chalmers.