Despite the fact that both the trailer and the synopsis of Charlie St. Cloud make it quite apparent that Charlie (Zac Efron) will lose his brother (Charlie Tahan) his brother in a tragic car accident the film still manages to be quite compelling which is rather impressive in and of itself. When one of the more crucial and emotionally wrenching facts about a film is a given the picture starts behind the eight ball but it manages quite nicely.
Another surprising element, without giving too much away, is that there is a twist within the telling of this tale but the nice thing about it is that the twist acts as part of a frame and not the lynchpin of the tale. Unlike many films which rely on a twist ending this one incorporates it into the storytelling without having the quality of the film hinge on whether or not you like the twist. In a sense the twist does not necessarily lie to you. While the rules of the preternatural visions are a bit hazy for much of the film by the end you’ve untangled them and see that what lies within the framed tale is still very much worth seeing.
In just over 10 minutes you get a sense for who Sam (Tahan) is and also the relationship that he and Charlie share. It is a good example of cinematic shorthand and what is also refreshing to see is that it was somewhat realistic. Due to the age difference Sam was frequently roughhousing with Charlie’s friends and didn’t have the cleanest vocabulary. However, just because it wasn’t Disneyfied saccharine doesn’t mean you didn’t feel the true emotions belied by the insults and punches thrown.
The editing in this film is particularly strong not only in terms of making the story flow but especially allowing the story to have emotional impact. Prime examples of this are in the flashback sequences and in the car accident. Particularly the latter as it demonstrates the power of sound and does not sensationalize events but knows instead the power of the human imagination.
Another interesting thing is that this film had Look At You style casting in which a familiar face you haven’t seen in a while pops up in an unexpected film as a supporting character. There is Kim Basinger, who plays the boys’ mother. Her involvement is also early on as the story does do a time jump of five years, which is not easy to pull off. It is well handled particularly when Charlie hears “You haven’t changed a bit.” It’s stock dialogue but it is a concern that needs addressing when you take a character from high school senior to someone who should be just out of college and have the same actor play both with little to no change in appearance. There’s also Ray Liotta who plays a small but pivotal role as a paramedic who Charlie runs into later on by chance. There’s also Donal Logue as Tess’s (Amanda Crew) mentor, you may know him from the series Grounded for Life. Lastly, there’s Augustus Prew who I hadn’t seen in quite sometime and who most may only remember as Rachel Weisz’s unstable son in About A Boy, does the line “She doesn’t fancy him, she only fancies me!” being screamed ring a bell? All these supporting characters play a very important role in adding dimension just beyond the two main relationships of the film namely Charlie-Sam and Charlie-Tess.
While being supported by a very capable performance by Amanda Crew, the film is called Charlie St. Cloud and for good reason. Efron dominates the film and carries it with ease. For the first time in a while you see him playing a fully-rounded character and not just rounding out a rather simple one. It’s a side of him many may not know existed between all the High School Musicals and Hairspray, it might not be the better one but it is strong nonetheless. Regardless it’s a strong wrenching performance. If Efron can find musical work that can let him play a layered character we can see him at his fullest potential but the film musical is still on life support.
What was also good to see was Burr Steers’ name as director. This marks his third feature and I’ve seen all of them and they are rather different from each other. First, there was a the sharp-witted, acerbic Igby Goes Down which was one of the best films of 2002. Then there was last year’s Efron star vehicle 17 Again, which while nothing special did have its moments of escaping the formula. While it’d be great to see of Steers has another writer/director gig in him it is good to see his versatility.
Overall, this was a cinematically and viscerally pleasing tear-jerker that is definitely worth seeing.