Charlie St. Cloud gets caught in two minds - it wants to be a metaphysical tale about love transcending death, - it even evokes both Somewhere In Time and Field Of Dreams - but neither Charlie's relationship with his dead sibling or the romance with Tess carries any real punch. In fact, little brother Sam is casually cast aside about half way through the movie when Tess arrives on the scene. Kim Basinger and Ray Liotta don't fare much better, either. Both flit in and out in nominal roles; Basinger as the boys' mother whose most significant contribution to the film is a voicemail message, and Liotta as the paramedic who hands over a medallion that will come to mean something significant to Charlie.
Director Burr Steers doesn't so much direct a performance from Efron, more assemble a series of lovingly-framed close-ups of the heartthrob staring wistfully into the distance. He never really convinces as the tortured soul, mainly because of his baby-face looks (the story advances five years into the future but Efron appears no different) and the weightless script he's battling against. His co-star Crew fares slightly better, imbuing Tess with smarts and wit to elevate her character above the standard romantic interest role. Unfortunately, a plot turn in the latter section of the movie throws an earlier graveyard liaison into a hilarious new context that's best not disclosed here (spoiler territory).
It's easy to appreciate what Charlie is trying to accomplish, but it does it in such a cloyingly manipulative manner that it's impossible to get on board with it. Sentimentality can sweep you away given the right circumstance, not so here as Steers never establishes strong enough emotional ties between Charlie and the two people most important to him. It's not that the performances are necessarily bad or that chemistry is off, it just skimps on character development and as a result leaves behind an empty, predictable story.
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