REVIEW: Stars Align For Zac Efron in Charlie St. Cloud
True-blue star vehicles are an increasingly rare phenomenon, in part because of a tacit, old-fashioned pact they make with audiences: The vehicle will give you an up-close and often partially clothed look at its subject, a known but not quite proven performer who will laugh, cry, and seduce for your pleasure. The vehicle will then deliver you to a destination of uplift and comfort you will subliminally associate with the subject. In return, you will deliver that subject to stardom. Who has time for the traditional route when there are so many short cuts available?
It seems that Zac Efron does. He's in many ways an old-fashioned young man, and his career has followed a kind of retro trajectory: Breakout teen performer with a fondness for old-school musicals, shopping-mall idol, self-conscious ingénue, and now, God- and Charlie St. Cloud-willing, full-blown movie star. He has chosen his parts with the cunning of a Mayer or Selznick, shaping a career into discrete stages, wary of overreaching, or putting, say, the superhero before the cart. It makes me a little nostalgic, actually, and so did Charlie St. Cloud, at least for a while. Set on the coast in the Pacific Northwest, it has a lush and yet slightly rumpled look; in the early scenes its loose-limbed tone combines with conspicuous class issues to give it the feel of a minor 1980's classic. Ultimately that quality gets sucked into the plot's disappointing spin cycle, a more-is-more tendency that feels like a modern phenomenon but probably isn't.
Charlie (Efron) and his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) are a team during their two-man sailing skiff competitions and at home, managing a house while their single mother (Kim Basinger, in a tiny, sketched-in role) works double shifts as a nurse. Charlie's the captain and a rough-hewn golden boy: Set to attend Stanford on a scholarship, he wants to spend his last summer at home racking up wins and teaching 10-year-old Sam some baseball essentials. Tahan is a blissfully natural brat -- he's sensitive, watchful, and occasionally impossible, and there is not a cloying note in what could easily have been a phoned-in moppet fest. "Sexy face," Charlie instructs his brother, just before a photo of the winning duo is snapped, and Tahan's expression is both so earnest and so self-aware -- he is, after all, standing beside a former teen dream -- that his character is established in a single frame.
One of their fellow competitors -- a girl named Tess (Amanda Crew) -- pulls a pretty mean sexy face whenever Charlie leaves her in the dust, but he's too caught up to notice. Determined to attend a party although he's on babysitting duty, Charlie is chauffeuring Sam to a friend's house when a drunk driver ends their evening -- and Sam's life -- prematurely. Director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, 17 Again) has a keen, highly intuitive sense of the story's space -- he keeps you exactly where you need to be -- and handles this scene and those that immediately follow with a steady, impressionistic intensity that avoids mawkish cliché. The bonehead shoveling giant palmfuls of popcorn into his mouth beside me didn't break his stride from the accident right through the funeral; I couldn't figure out if that boded well or badly for the film.
After a five-year jump we find Charlie exactly where we left him: in the cemetery, where he now works as a groundskeeper. Life has stopped completely because Charlie has discovered a loophole that will keep Sam in limbo -- and visible only to him -- as long as Charlie keeps the deal they made the day he died to work on their fastballs every evening at dusk. It's a blunt but serviceable metaphor, one that is strained when a burgeoning love affair with now-thriving sailor Tess is shoehorned into it in one of those shocking, spoiler-ific twists. It's as if Burr felt what he had -- a perfectly warm, well-acted film about grief and getting on with life -- was not enough; the film goes for maximum wow factor instead of following its better, quieter instincts.
Efron, who has finally abdicated that appalling haircut to his heir apparent, Justin Beiber, is charming, as usual, but also a surprisingly substantial presence on screen. I refer not only to his, well, well-developed body and frequently-tapped waterworks, but also to a striking emotional confidence, even as he plays a promising young man who has withdrawn from his peers and his plans. The vehicle may get a little jacked up along the way, but its passenger arrives in style: The kid's a star.