Faithfully retaining the maudlin contrivance (if not the plot particulars) of Ben Sherwood’s 2004 novel, “Charlie St. Cloud” is a “Lovely Bones Lite” sentimental fantasy with Zac Efron in active contact with deceased loved ones. Auds for this kind of inspirational tearjerker usually skew older, so Efron and director Burr Steers may find fewer takers than they did for last year’s more comedic fantasy, “17 Again.” Religious overtones, however, could make this the rare mainstream feature that connects with the faith-based entertainment market.
Eighteen-year-old Charlie (Efron) and kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) have been raised in a quaint coastal town by their working-class single mom (Kim Basinger). When the boys are involved in a car crash, only Charlie survives. Keeping a promise never to separate, Sam shows up as a very flesh-and-blood ghost — albeit one only Charlie can see — to play catch every day at dusk in the forest near his final resting place.
In order to keep that daily date, Charlie puts college plans on perma-hold and becomes the cemetery’s caretaker. He mostly keeps to himself, but does spark with Tess (Amanda Crew), whom he’d regularly beaten in sailing competitions during high school but who is now prepping for a solo around-the-world race.
When Tess shows up disheveled in the graveyard one day, their tentative romance advances a few steps. But then it emerges that Tess was last seen sailing into a storm, and may be lost at sea. Is she another ghost Charlie can see (and touch, and then some) because he’d briefly “crossed over” for a few minutes after his accident, before being revived by a prayerful paramedic (Ray Liotta)?
As book and film, “Charlie St. Cloud” is spiritual comfort food that suggests the dead never leave us — in even more literal terms than in “The Lovely Bones” — and that love for one’s family or mate can be so special it will transcend, or at least bend, the usual gulfs between life and death. Surviving page-to-screen is the tome’s first sentence, “I believe in miracles,” as well as a homily-prone sentimentality.
Scenarists Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick considerably alter some of the novel’s elements while maintaining its overall gist. Most notably, Charlie is no longer first met as a 15-year-old nonsailor but as a high school graduate with a “sailing scholarship to Stanford.” The story’s timespan is compressed from 13 to five years, and there’s an action-cliffhanger climax. (Setting has also been changed from Marblehead, Mass., to fictive Quincy Harbor, shot in picturesque but cheaper British Columbia locations.)
Not missed are Sherwood’s gushing character descriptions (“He was the most perfect man she had ever touched,” etc.), or his penchant for telling readers exactly what to think and feel at every juncture. Some changes are less felicitous, such as making the brothers cockier, their dynamic more bratty than tender. As a result, juve thesp Tahan (“I Am Legend”) quickly grows irksome.
Other perfs are just OK. Photographed and dressed (or occasionally undressed) for maximum swoonage, Efron holds the screen but hasn’t yet demonstrated depth beyond facile charm and junior hunkitude. The novel’s older protag is bowed by grief and guilt; pic reshuffles the deck to support thesp’s more callow range of emotion.
Those easily moved will sniffle as cued; anyone else is likely to remain dry-eyed. Though the narrative can’t help but inspire some eye-rolling, director Steers does avoid some potential bathos via brisk pacing and glossy packaging.