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Charlie St. Cloud

Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor, glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual, uneasy one, as is evidenced by his latest film, the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud, which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron, it appears, is in that awkward stage.

In Charlie St. Cloud, Efron plays the title character, a carefree, college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie, at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash, briefly dies himself, only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).

Years later, Charlie's body has made a full recovery, but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He's given up sailing, ditched his college plans, gotten a job at a cemetery, and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam, with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually, such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration, which is why you don't encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens, earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.

Unable to escape his all-consuming grief, Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives, wrapped in a cardigan: Tess, (Amanda Crew), a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself, can see beyond Charlie's unhinged persona to the sensitive, troubled, and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens, Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.

It's a noble aim, giving tweens questions deeper than just "Edward or Jacob?" to contemplate, and Charlie St. Cloud's principal message, "life is for living," is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers, having learned from the success of 17 Again, clearly knows where his bread is buttered, and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron's screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star, lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue, solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating, check out this studio-supplied promo clip, featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial, combined with a healthy dose of loopy, Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end, makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron's fans could enjoy. rated this film 2 stars.