Charlie St. Cloud is about letting go, moving on and living life. We know this because it says as much on the poster. You can also pick out this message in the trailer. Also, at a pivotal moment in the film, a character asks Charlie “are we turning back, or are we moving on?” At almost every possible moment, Charlie St. Cloud will stop to make sure that the audience is following along with the theme, even though it isn’t at all hard to follow. Meanwhile, the film ends up telling its story badly, relying on the sort of audience tolerance that a young heartthrob like Zac Efron can elicit.
Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) has just won a sailing scholarship for Stanford, and will be heading out to the university when summer ends. Meanwhile, he promises his little brother Sam that he’s going to help him practice baseball for the rest of the summer. But one night, he and Sam get into a car accident, and only Charlie survives. At the funeral, Charlie runs away distraught, only to find what appears to be the ghost of his brother waiting for him to play catch. Five years later, Charlie hasn’t moved on, and he’s still sneaking away at sunset to be with Sam. But plucky would-be sailing champion Tess (Amanda Crew) starts to bring Charlie out of his shell.
The film plays around with a lot of random notions. There are sequences about sailing, baseball, ghosts, romance, religion, and class conflict, though none of it is fleshed out enough to give the film an identity. All that’s there is a thoroughly muddled story that tends to gloss over practical details as it delivers its generic life-affirming message. Some of the questions that you might ask while watching the film: can Charlie’s ghosts interact with objects? Can they tear up magazines? Did Charlie actually go sailing with a ghost? If he didn’t, what did he actually do that day? These details might have grounded the film somewhat, but the film just isn’t interested in that sort of grounding.
The film’s trajectory is pretty obvious right from the start, but it’s really the filmmakers’ disinterest that eventually sinks the film. The apathy is palpable, the film just a collection of really obvious choices. Nothing in the film suggests anything personal or original or compelling. Everything is bathed in a warm golden glow, the music is a mix of overwrought dramatic score and trendy young people music, and the themes are written out so clearly that they might as well have handed out fliers. “This is why I was given a second chance,” blurts Charlie late in the film, ignoring all sense of logic or history as he guides the audience forcefully down the film’s canyon of messaging.
I am thoroughly convinced that Zac Efron could be great one day. He has plenty of natural talent, much of it already on show in this film. But there’s absolutely no darkness to him, which is more of a function of his lack of his real experience. His dramatic scenes tend to devolve into tantrums, all rage and fury signifying nothing. He has plenty of chemistry with his co-star Amanda Crew, and together, they make bits of this film more than a little tolerable. Charlie Tahan, who plays young Sam, is sort of charming but unremarkable.
Charlie St. Cloud is occasionally just earnest enough to be bearable, and the basic appeal of watching attractive young people in beautiful settings might get audiences through it all. But that’s pretty much all this film can promise. The rest of it is a pretty big mess of made-for-TV drudgery, complete with life-affirming message repeated endlessly until it loses all meaning. I think the message is still a worthy one, but if we were taking the film’s advice, then we don’t really have the time for such a lukewarm little picture. There’s a lot more life to be lived out there, after all.