Charlie St. Cloud is blessed: Not only does he have a fantastic name (just screaming for a Hollywood treatment, in fact), he’s also young, incredibly cute, and has just got a ticket to Stanford via a boating scholarship. For all that, he’s humble and sincere, hailing from a working-class background and double-shift-pulling parents.
Then, abruptly, Charlie’s life literally swerves out of lane when a car accident (he was driving) kills his 11-year old brother Sam but leaves Charlie miraculously intact. What now for the golden boy?
Thus begins the movie “Charlie St. Cloud” (released in Japan as “Kimi ga Kureta Mirai”), based on Ben Sherwood’s novel “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud” and starring Zac Efron. As the title suggests, the story is pretty obsessively focused on Charlie, so much that it practically invites you to live through him — his perfectly toned physique, his clear-eyed vision, the untainted purity of his heart and other indicative traits that show Sherwood is either really good at this game or harbors a massive crush on his own creation. Probably a bit of both.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||99 minutes|
And what better director to take on the task of adapting this delicate, soulful material on screen than Burr Steers, who made the quirky and estimable “Igby Goes Down” in 2002. “Igby” was also a tale about a boy — refashioning the particular appeal of then-17-year-old Kieran Culkin into a modern day Holden Caulfield. Steers has both extraordinary flair and an unerring eye when depicting handsome lads in their pained but glorious late teens; it’s safe to assume that “Charlie St. Cloud” has all the ingredients on hand for sighs and tears and poignant longings about the way we were.
Or almost. The snag here is that Charlie is waist-high in the marshlands of Hollywood metaphysics, by which I mean that he has the power to “see dead people” (sotto voce please). Every day, for five whole years after the accident, Charlie and Sam (Charlie Tahan) play catch at sunset in the cemetery where Sam is buried. Charlie has abandoned Stanford for a job as the cemetery caretaker and is right in his element, hanging out with Sam or enjoying an impromptu chat with a high-school buddy who joined the marines and was killed in Iraq. And this is where the story loses a good chunk of its credibility points: Charlie has remained as pretty and polished as the day he stepped into the car and suffered a tragedy that in reality would have changed him forever; he radiates freshness and well-being, as if cemetery work has the same effect on the body as a long-term stay at an Aveda spa and a vegan diet. The guy probably smells amazing, too — something along the lines of rosemary and fair-trade sandalwood.
So, five years have gone by, and the year is 2005. Charlie’s friends have left their small town and got jobs and girlfriends and moved away. But Charlie has stayed put — out of loyalty to Sam and a crushing dose of survivor’s guilt.
He and Sam still play catch but, gradually, something clicks in Charlie’s mind, and the routine just doesn’t feel the same anymore. Before Charlie can articulate why, a stunning brunette named Tess (Amanda Crew) walks into his life. She’s a reminder of all that he has left behind: unfettered personal happiness, a real relationship, sexual intimacy. She’s a boating champ too, and is set to sail around the world.
Will Charlie go with her? The question throws him into the vortex of a turbulent existential dilemma: Restart his life on a clean slate with the woman he loves, or stand by Sam’s plea to “always be brothers, no matter what.” It’s a toughie.
“Charlie St. Cloud” is romantic in the truest sense of the word, opting for emotional confusion and chaos over streamlined logic and flat-lined simplicity. There’s also something Victorian in Charlie’s obsession with death and his penchant for gravestone pondering. But Steers is too mindful of a modern audience who could probably take such elements in a period movie starring Johnny Depp, but would be far less tolerant of Efron mingling with the macabre. As a result, the film is all honeyed lighting and resplendent green backdrops (filmed on location in British Columbia), with Charlie and Sam laughing and frolicking in a gem of a forest.
You can see in Efron’s expressions that he’s willing to go further out on the limb for this. Sadly, though he may have been ready to take risks, it seems as though the filmmakers chickened out, spoiling what could have been a very effective creepiness.