There's something painfully off about "Charlie St. Cloud" that causes it to miss most of the dramatic points it endeavors to make. It's a well-intentioned tearjerker, but the film appears to have been whittled down rather harshly in the editing room, leaving a picture of little personality, but perceptible ambition.
A confident, skilled teen, Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) has a bright educational future ahead of him, pulling him away from his family, including his beloved little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan). When a car accident kills Sam, Charlie is devastated by the loss, shelving his potential to stay home, hoping to honor a promise to his sibling that the two will play catch daily at sunset, palling around a local forest. While the world moves on around Charlie, the young man plants himself, seeking the daily comfort of Sam's ghost. Complicating matters is Tess (Amanda Crew, "Sex Drive"), a determined sailor who takes a shine to the wounded young man, despite their competitive past. It's a relationship that confuses Charlie, now caught between the love of a woman and the spirit of his dead brother.
Based on the novel by Ben Sherwood, "Charlie St. Cloud" has the appearance of a thoughtful story pared down to basic elements of grief for the screen. Something about the tale apparently spooked the studio and director Burr Steers ("17 Again"), who've both streamlined the story for the final cut, stripping away useful characterization to hit sweet spots of crippling guilt that drive the emotion of the piece. Necessary supporting characters, such as Charlie's mother (Kim Basinger) and his devoted paramedic (Ray Liotta), are clipped almost entirely out of the film, leaving massive gaps in the community atmosphere the script appears interested in developing.
The cold editorial decisions rob the film of focus, leaving Charlie's quest slightly confusing, with all the yearn well cared for, but the rules of his ghost whispering in the dark. The role is handed a comforting, modest touch from Efron, who doesn't quite have the darkness within him to articulate the paralyzing shame, but the awakening spirit of the character is nicely played. Efron gives the role a generous clench of raw emotion, but Steers loses the effect by glossing over the particulars of the afterlife, which come across frustratingly random at times. There are twists to the feature, but nothing provides a direct impact, primarily because the foundation of Charlie's anguish is only vaguely established. Again, it seems like a colossal chunk of life was removed from the picture somewhere on the way to release, making the feature feel like one big build up to nothing.
The AVC encoded image (2.40:1 aspect ratio) presentation has the benefit of gorgeous locations and handsome actors to study, making for an immediately striking visual experience. The outdoor and aquatic sequences are sublime, with a rich evocation of natural elements, bursting with bold summertime colors of blue and green. Detail is consistent, taking special take of close-ups and community history, with a good read of melodramatic communication, along with the visual cues that help push the mystery along. Skintones are accurate, and shadow detail is supportive, only feeling truly muddy during low-light sequences.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is buoyant and eventful, with special attention paid to the atmospheric elements of the track, giving the shores and forests a welcome directional feel to boost the sensation of place and time. Dialogue is contained, but a touch on the tinny side at times. Soundtrack and scoring cues add a pleasing sense of dimension, working the surrounds subtlety until dramatic demands call upon them to blare confidently. Low-end is threadbare at best, as the mix is more meaningful with characterization, not spectacle. DVS, Spanish, and French tracks are also included.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Burr Steers starts off confidently enough, with the filmmaker exploring the process of making the film, along with the challenges that arose with the elements (e.g. no wind for the sailing sequences). It doesn't take long for Steers to lose interest, relying on play-by-play to get him through the conversation. Talk of deleted subplots and adaptation decisions is interesting, but there's little excitement here to make the track worth the time invested.
"Deleted Scenes" (10:27) don't offer major additions to the story, instead sticking with minor character beats that deepen Charlie's concern. Those hoping for more with Basinger and Liotta will be disappointed. They can be viewed with or without commentary from Burr Steers.
"On Location with Zac Efron" (12:42) meets up with the young star in Vancouver, who walks the viewer through various locations and greets the co-stars that help to fill out the world of the film. Some good BTS footage here to enjoy, but the platitudes pile up quickly, making it hard to swallow the interview segments.
"Zac Efron, Leading Man" (7:07) bends down to smooch some Efron behind, with interviews bestowing glowing praise for the actor. Working together for a second film, the relationship between Efron and Steers takes the spotlight, exploring their partnership.
"The In-Between World" (10:00) talks to spirit world experts and key film professionals to discuss the ghostly aspects of the story, debating the reality of the parapsychology contained within the picture.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Attempting to liven up the proceedings with a suspenseful, adventurous finale at sea, "Charlie St. Cloud" leaps before it looks, motoring into melodramatic events that appear a bit too hysterical for the situation at hand, while once again crossing into muddled storytelling that doesn't deliver an adequate payoff to the afterlife mysteries. "Charlie St. Cloud" certainly means well, and once again I'm impressed with Efron's gifts as an actor, but the picture is a declawed mess, begging for tears in the end. I hope the filmmakers are willing to accept puzzled looks instead.