Charlie St. Cloud

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud (2010)

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud (aka Charlie St. Cloud) first published by Sight & Sound, November 2010

Review: “You can’t always be putting life on hold,” Claire St. Cloud (Kim Basinger) advises her son Charlie (Zac Efron) near the beginning of The Life and Death of Charlie St. Cloud (aka Charlie St. Cloud). Sure enough, pause for thought and you might miss the few remaining seconds that Basinger has on screen – although later her disembodied voice will be heard on Charlie’s answering machine, as if a ghost were making contact from another world.

As in his 2002 debut Igby Goes Down and his 2009 follow-up 17 Again (also starring Efron), here director Burr Steers shows a man struggling to navigate his way from adolescence to adulthood. Fresh out of high school and set to take up a scholarship at Stanford, small-town sailor Charlie seems to have a bright future, until he and his 11-year-old brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) are both killed in a car accident. Charlie is ‘miraculously’ revived, but cannot let go of the less fortunate Sam – and so stays behind in the coastal town, living and working at the local cemetery (much like the antihero of Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore, 1994) where he sees, Sixth Sense-style, dead people, and continues practising baseball every evening with Sam. Then, five years later, old classmate Tess (Amanda Crew) comes along, inviting Charlie to sail the seas of life once again, and so the film plays out like Up (2009) in reverse, with Charlie forced to decide between sticking with the dead kid, or following the still living woman of his dreams. You can guess the rest.

Or perhaps you cannot. Charlie St. Cloud may unfurl a series of sentimental clichés, epitomised by Ray Liotta‘s life-saving, St Jude-worshipping paramedic Florio who not only babbles about the providential nature of Charlie’s survival, but who is also himself dying from cancer – but there is also a deftly handled twist at the heart of this film, even if it blatantly stretches the rules. Some of the dead here are just mostly dead.

The film’s blending of romance and the supernatural can be traced at least as far back as Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); but the tell-you-how-to-feel pop ballad soundtrack, the sight of a once-teen heartthrob (indeed, a High School Musical graduate) now arrested in adolescence beyond his years, and the repeated scenes of Efron removing his shirt and rippling his musculature for the adoring camera, all suggest the more recent influence of the Twilight saga. Efron’s Charlie even likens himself at one point to a werewolf.

Ultimately the film fails, much like several of its characters, fully to cross over. It wants to address the fractured emotions of love and loss seriously, but its aestheticisation clashes with its earnestness. Charlie is just too pretty to convince as a tormented soul – and even the graveyard exhibits a picturesque cosiness that precludes any sense of the gothic. Steers has buried his themes so deep beneath the soft-lit surface of good looks and mushy feelings that the film never really quite comes to life.  

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Synopsis: The Pacific Northwest, US. A sailing champion just graduated from High School with a Stanford scholarship, Charlie St. Cloud has everything ahead of him. Then he and his 11-year-old brother Sam are both killed in a car accident – only for Charlie to be miraculously revived by paramedic Florio Ferrente. At Sam’s funeral, Charlie sees Sam, and promises to meet him for an hour every sunset. 

Five years later, Charlie works as the cemetery caretaker, conversing with the recently dead, and keeping his daily appointments with Sam. When former classmate Tess re-emerges, Charlie must decide whether to follow his new beloved as she circumnavigates the world, or to stay behind with Sam. As news comes in that Tess never returned from a test sail she took three days earlier, Charlie realises that he has been romancing her ghost, not yet passed over to the other side. Armed with the late Florio’s medallion of Saint Jude (patron saint of lost causes), Charlie races off to find Tess, even though this means missing an evening with Sam. Against all odds, he finds her on some wave-swept rocks, and his embrace keeps her alive till they are rescued. Meanwhile Sam departs into the light. 

Charlie invites Tess to take a chance with him, echoing words that her ghost had said to him earlier. Sam appears to Charlie one last time, and Charlie promises they will be brothers forever. Tess and Charlie set off to circumnavigate the world together.  

strap: Burr Steers’ romantic ghost story skims the surface of love and loss

Anton Bitel