– Summary –
Director : Burr Steers
Year Of Release : 2010
Principal Cast : Zac Efron, Amanda Crew, Charlie Taha, Ray Liotta, Donal Logue, Kim Basinger.
Approx Running Time : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: Young sailing tyro Charlie St Cloud loses his younger brother in a car accident, leaving him emotionally broken – and working at the towns cemetery – where he develops the reputation as the towns local loony. But when he meets fellow sailing fan Tess, he suddenly realizes that he must leave his brother behind if he’s to move forward.
What we think : Oh-so-close emotional roller-coaster, Charlie St Cloud is a brave step for Disney prodigy Zac Efron, and although it hits the right notes on screen, somehow doesn’t bring the love in terms of actual impact. The film relies on the “I see dead people” plot device which, I must admit, has worn thin through overuse since Bruce Willis took Haley Joel Osment to that creepy creepy wake. Still, it’s a good film, warranting at least one watch with a loved one on your arm for comfort – there’s obvious emotional wringing of hands and heartstrings, but whether it affects you or not depends on your tolerance for a somewhat contrived romantic interlude.
Hands up: who loves High School Musical? Baahh, not me, I detest those musical hemorrhoids on the fabric of society. However, I do not completely detest young Zac Efron, since seeing his terrific performance in recent big-budget Hollywood version of Hairspray. So when the wife wanted to watch Charlie St Cloud (no, it’s not a film I would have chosen had I been in the video store by myself) I gave my hesitation a little pat on the bum and told it to go sod off for a while. I was prepared to give Efron a chance, since he seemed a competent actor outside of the Disney-fied musical teeny-bopper genre. I’m glad I did give Mr Efron a chance, because Charlie St Cloud isn’t actually as horrific a film as I was prepared to expect. Based on the novel The Death And Life Of Charlie St Cloud, the film does swerve away from the source material in only the most minor elements, leaving the core of the book intact (well, as intact as you can get in a Hollywood flick!). Based on the novels title, it’s easy to see that this film is going to deal a lot with death, life, and grief. And it does.
Charlie St Cloud (Zac Efron) and his brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) are driving to Sam’s friends house to watch Baseball, when they are involved in accident which leaves Sam dead, and Charlie being resuscitated in the back of an ambulance. The death of his brother affects Charlie deeply, with him forgoing his sailing scholarship with a major University, pulling away from his family and friends and eventually, winding up as a groundskeeper at the town’s cemetery. His promise to Sam before the accident that Charlie will never leave him is a promise he intends to keep, meeting Sam’s ghost in the woods by the cemetery to practice baseball. Five years later, Charlie has become the local loony, until he meets former sailing competitor and now Round-The-World participant Tess (Amanda Crew), and falls for her. But something goes wrong for Tess on a practice sail out into the harbor, and her boat goes missing – problematic for Charlie because he’s been seeing her for the last few days and he suddenly realizes that, man, she could be dead.
Charlie St Cloud is a “dead people” flick, a la The Sixth Sense, albeit without the heavy handed gravitas M Night gave us in that seminal ghost movie. Charlie, after his near-death experience, can suddenly see and interact with dead folks, which of course leads to him being somewhat ostracized by his community. The film reeks of overly cooked Hollywood sentimentality, even down to the emotionally charged Rolfe Kent score (a more sweeping score you won’t find outside a David Lean epic) and the brilliantly color-corrected cinematography (no doubt thanks to DOP Enrique Chediak’s stunning lenswork), but the heart of the film doesn’t beat as strongly as the production values would have you hope for. The themes of the film include loss and grief, especially with Charlie’s sense of guilt of responsibility to Sam’s death, but the primary focus appears to be on love – yeah, love – in the face of going mildly insane and seeing dead people. The cliches of the “I see dead people” film are prevalent everywhere here, although never obviously dealt with by Burr Steer’s restrained directorial style. The “ghosts” appear and disappear at will, the blinding “white light” and the “Crossing over” techniques we’ve come to expect from Hollywood are once again given to us here, yet it doesn’t feel old or contrived in that aspect: at least, not to a casual viewer. The more critical eye will squidge with dismay at some of the straight rip-offs of other films of this ilk.
What does feel a little contrived is the romantic subplot of the film, and considering it’s a key element to the movie overall, I was a little disappointed by it’s lack of impact. Charlie and Tess, two sailing spirits who meet, fall in love, and then feel the anguish of possibly being separated, have an obvious chemistry, and the outcome of this film seems (at first) carved in granite. But a hint of Tess being dead half way through the film does drive a little tension into the narrative, a tension bizarrely missing when Sam is taken out by a drunk driver in the opening stanza. To me, the link between Sam and Charlie wasn’t as well developed as the link between Tess and Charlie, so the films inevitable finale, in which Charlie must confront his own feelings towards his guilt about Sam, doesn’t quite gel as well as the secondary story of the Tess/Charlie element. It’s not that the acting is bad or the characters aren’t likable or anything of that nature – it’s just that the film’s melancholy tone (especially at the beginning) is a little off-putting at first. It will take a while for a viewer to get into the mindset this film asks of you – it looks all light and fluffy but is actually a pretty sad story. There’s an uneven quality to the film as a whole, like it wants to be a sweet-natured romantic drama, yet dwells in soul-destroying anguish and despair.
Director Burr Steers gives the film a lyrical quality, perhaps with the visual aesthetic moreso than the rather morose script, while Efron delivers a performance worthy of both the material and his talent. I’d like to have seen the film delve more deeply into his grief, and his guilt at being somewhat responsible for Sam’s death, but the script never really touches on it beyond the superficial. Efron’s got something, folks, a genuine star potential which, unlike this film, is only going to grow in potential as he develops as an actor. Charlie St Cloud isn’t a film with plenty to say, and I would hesitate to use the term “great” within the confines of this review, but I will admit to being impressed with Efron’s ability to produce a performance that didn’t totally suck balls. Seems his work on the Disney lot is going to pay off for him in the long term – at least a lot more than his fellow HSM alumni, most of whom haven’t done much since. It’s a worthwhile film for folks who’ve read the book and are keen to see it make the big screen transition, but for serious connoisseurs of cinema, Charlie St Cloud will smack of too many contrivances and a whole slew of sentimentality – much of which will grate after a while. Let’s hope that in the future, Efron decides to embrace his potential and deliver a performance this film only hints at – I think he’s got potential, I only hope he doesn’t squander it pandering to his tweenage fan-club at the expense of growth as an actor.
Charlie St Cloud is a film with many problems, all of which have more to do with the story and less to do with the performances – cameo roles to Ray Liotta, Kim Basinger, and a criminally underwritten Donal Logue all assist to give the film a sense of depth that, sadly, is lacking in the script, which is content to produce cliche after cliche to drive the narrative. Still, the film is watchable, and while not the emotional wringer it could have been, is worthwhile for a lazy Sunday afternoon instead.