Charlie St. Cloud: Third Feature of Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down)

By Patrick Z. McGavin

The third feature of the talented actor and filmmaker Burr Steers, “Charlie St. Cloud” is another of the director’s ambitious attempts to subvert and transcend the standard forms about alienated teenagers.

The movie is colored in big ideas, ruminating on guilt and loss, but it is also rather inchoate and finally feels closer to a pastiche that collects different parts of other forms than ever registering as a fully realized work on its own.
Streers made the terrific debut “Igby Goes Down,” but his sensibility seems a little too off-key and naturally inventive for this kind material. Steers and the writers Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick have adapted the novel by Ben Sherwood. The magic realist plot impulses are more organically and naturally rooted in literature, and marking the transition to film is a difficult one that appears far too blunt and manipulative to work either emotionally or dramatically.
Just like Steers’ previous feature, “17 Again,” the new film stars the dashing young actor Zac Efron as the title protagonist. Efron is going after something quite different from his other performances, a subdued and withholding quality that is rather risky. He pulls it off technically, but the part, like most in the film, is underdeveloped and badly modulated.
The movie is structured with a prologue and the bulk of the action set five years later. It starts off with some gusto, the traveling camera shots sharply visualizing Charlie’s cool impulsiveness and verve as the gifted, possibly brilliant, sailor who outmaneuvers the field to capture a cherished local race. Charlie’s skipper is his 11-year-old brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), and the opening is a deft illustration of their camaraderie and closeness. The opening sequence ends with a nice flourish of Charlie performing a backward flip off the deck of his boat.
The end of the race also introduces a harsh class grievance Charlie senses about his family’s more restricted social privilege compared with the rest of the town. The resentment is perhaps manifested at an absent father and somewhat overwhelmed mother (Kim Basinger, in a small part). Significantly, his two best friends are similarly handicapped financially and they both opt for military service directly out of high school.
As an elite student and athlete, Charlie appears poised for a much different destiny, particularly given his scholarship to Stanford. Charlie’s world is shattered when he and his brother are involved in a horrifying car crash. A paramedic (Ray Liotta) dramatically revives Charlie though Sam dies from the complications of the injuries he suffered.
It is rare for a commercial studio film to deal with death and loss of the young, but the story development indicates larger problems. Like “17 Again,” the new film turns on a transmigration of the soul as the young boy returns to the secluded point in the woods the brothers had settled on where Charlie planned to tutor his young charge in the mechanics and fundamentals of baseball.
The story now advanced five years. Charlie is an emotionally damaged young man whose own near death experience either has made it possible for him to commune with the dead or unhinged him and the images offered are his hallucinatory projections. It marks a particular squandered opportunity Steers and his writers never broach the ambiguity or ever address the possibility of his own mental imbalance.
The whole middle is largely fractured and rendered incoherent as the story shifts between a highly episodic structure that follows Charlie navigating a cloistered milieu working as a keeper at a cemetery, and he is deeply conflicted over how to properly mourn his brother and also get on with the great promise of his still quite young life.
For a movie haunted by the specter of death, “Charlie St. Cloud” is weighed down by the filmmakers’ worst kind of denial, where they are prove either unable or unwilling to truly explore what their movie is about and what they want to say about it.
So the movie has bits and moments, like the brothers taking advantage of a storm to surf the rain-splashed landscape or using a remote controlled toy plane to interfere with the habits of the geese that wreak havoc on Charlie’s work. These are also too loosely aligned and disjointed to acquire the necessary depth and intensity of observation or emotional experience.
Charlie’s tight, self-enclosed world is suddenly jolted by a tentative romantic interest. Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew) has an awkward grace and beguiling beauty, and most important, she’s also a sailing enthusiast preparing to embark on an ambitious solo journey around the world. (She is also, way too conveniently, coping with her own pronounced loss.)
Complications naturally ensue and Charlie is forced to decide between honoring the memory of his brother or acknowledge the need to move forward by positively impacting somebody else’s life.
Efron is the center of the movie, and Steers is never afraid of treating him like a fetish. He’s an impossibly good looking young man, almost to the point he appears too scrubbed and perfect to acquire any kind of deeper personality or sensibility. He projects a natural coolness and brooding intensity, but the characterization feels too elastic and shapeless to bring all these different parts together.
It’s not a failure, and it can’t be panned, but the movie consists of just parts or pieces that never fuse into a compelling whole.