Charlie St. Cloud

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Zac Efron is too pretty and has starred in too many films with the words “High School Musical” in the title to be taken very seriously as an actor, but he’s getting there. He acquits himself fairly well as the title character in the sentimental, teen-focused melodrama “Charlie St. Cloud,” tackling a lot of grown-up-actor tricks like Crying and Mourning and Being Sad. If some unknown 22-year-old actor had given the same performance in the same movie, I think there’d be a lot less automatic scoffing from those outside the teen-girl demographic.

Well, and if the movie’s poster didn’t have him staring dreamily into space, his flawless skin aglow in the soft light. That’s not helping your “take me seriously” campaign, movie.

We begin with Charlie graduating from high school with plans to attend Stanford on a sailing scholarship. Sailing is a big deal in the seaside town of Quincy Harbor, Wash., and it’s Charlie’s primary interest. His secondary interest is Sam (Charlie Tahan), his 11-year-old brother. Sam loves baseball in general and the Red Sox specifically. Charlie and Sam play catch in the woods near their house. Sam looks up to his big brother. Charlie watches out for his little brother. Before the film is 15 minutes old, Sam is dead. Wheeee!

Sam’s death does not prevent him from playing catch with Charlie, though. Every day at sunset, Charlie hurries to the woods to meet his deceased brother for a few minutes. He pledges never to miss a day. He pledges never to let go of Sam, even if it means not going to Stanford, or even leaving town for more than a day at a time.

Then it is five years later. Charlie works as a caretaker at the cemetery, where he seems to be able to see other dead people, too, which I suppose comes in handy. (“What font did he want on his headstone? Never mind, I’ll just ask him,” etc.) Charlie has not sailed since Sam died, though his interest is rekindled somewhat when he runs into former classmate Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew), a fellow sailor who’s preparing for an around-the-world voyage.

It’s a poignant situation: the young man who has stopped living because his brother did. If we understand Sam’s daily appearances as manifestations of Charlie’s guilt and grief, it’s easy to be touched by the tragedy of it all. Director Burr Steers (who also made Efron’s “17 Again”) keeps things from getting too maudlin, and he creates a sweet, honest relationship between Efron and Tahan as the brothers. This could have been a sappy Hallmark story; instead it’s uplifting and thoughtful.

Things get a little murky if we take Sam’s visits literally, i.e., if we’re meant to believe his ghost is actually appearing to Charlie, rather than Charlie imagining it. But the movie seems to go in that direction (I gather it’s the same way in the Ben Sherwood novel it’s based on), and we’re forced to grapple with these convoluted spiritual ideas that don’t make any sense. It was better when everything was metaphorical. We can all relate to grief and loss. Most of us cannot relate to visitations from spirit personages.

Weirdly underused are Kim Basinger as Charlie and Sam’s mother, Donal Logue as Tess’ sailing coach, and Ray Liotta as the paramedic who saved Charlie’s life. Charlie’s mom leaves a message on his answering machine late in the film that I half-expected to include a plea for more scenes. (“Just wanted to let you know I’m still in the movie… Give me a call if you want to meet up, in person, so I can be visible…”)

Yes, the story’s climax is a little dopey. By that point, though, I’d been won over by the film’s basic sincerity and respectability. It addresses its mature ideas intelligently and doesn’t pander too shamelessly to its core audience. Why, Efron only appears shirtless in a couple scenes, and never once sings, dances, or plays basketball. This is progress!

B- (1 hr., 39 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, several vulgar references, a little very mild sexuality.)

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