Schmaltzy spawn of The Sixth Sense, Charlie St. Cloud stars Disney robo-star Zac Efron as a high school graduate named Charlie who can see dead people. Specifically, he can see his deceased brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), who died in an auto accident that should have also killed Charlie except that, according to Ray Liotta’s St. Jude pendant-kissing EMT, God gave him a second chance for a reason. What with all the early references to the Almighty, Burr Steers’s film never casts any doubt on whether Charlie is a lunatic or actually speaking to his sibling’s spirit, thereby draining the only mystery from a teen-lit fable otherwise beholden to telegraphed redemption pap.
In Charlie’s quaint New England town, where kids spend their days racing yachts and frolicking in the enchanting woods (his daily visits with his bro take place in a golden-lit forest clearing), everything of note happens at sundown, the characters’ lives drenched in honeysuckle magic-hour hues. This cozy down-home atmosphere is so enveloping that it actually works at odds with the story’s portrait of Charlie, who five years after the tragic car crash, is a sullen loner who has given up on his future (including his sailing scholarship to Stanford) to work as the local cemetery’s caretaker.
Charlie’s patch of small-town East Coast U.S.A. proves a scenic venue for his conversations with the departed, but Efron—habitually shot staring off into the distance, his face seemingly digitally airbrushed of blemishes—can’t come close to expressing his contrived character’s longing, hurt, and guilt. Consequently, while Charlie St. Cloud is reasonably competent when detailing Charlie’s budding romance with a sailor named Tess (Amanda Crew), it falls apart during those moments when its protagonist broods intensely, culminating in a laughable scene in which Efron drowns his misery with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Far too pretty-boy insubstantial to carry the emotional drama of even a hoary melodramatic trifle like this, Efron only appears comfortable when asked to pose like a J. Crew model aboard a racing boat or sitting on a lighthouse perch.
At the same time, the film clings to the notion that Charlie is alive because of a higher calling (which comes to fruition during a corny third act), all the while ignoring the fact that—if this is true—it also holds that Sam died because his life had no greater purpose or meaning. Then again, asking mush like this to grapple with theological questions is about as unreasonable as former A-lister Kim Basinger’s cursory cameo as Charlie’s mom is depressing.