That bittersweet quality is felt most keenly in the relationship between Charlie and Sam, which is laced with underlying resentment: Charlie refuses to let go of Sam emotionally, but he also resents Sam for holding him back; Sam, meanwhile, resents Charlie’s resentment, accusing his older brother of secretly yearning to leave him behind, especially after Charlie becomes interested in Tess.
After a first act that effectively sets the stage, Charlie St Cloud settles into a too-measured pace meant to convey the stasis of Charlie’s life. The character is a bit too wrapped up in himself, too precious about holding onto his grief, and too passive to fully engage us. Florio, the paramedic who pulled Charlie back from the grave, is surprised to see the young man wasting his second chance by spending his life literally among the dead, and we are forced to agree. Fortunately, Efron is charismatic enough as an actor to hold our attention and our sympathy, even when we start to feel that Charlie needs a good swift kick to snap him out of his bad mood.
Things pick up when Tess goes missing while trying out her new boat. At this point,the focus shifts away from grieving to the suggestion made by Florio that there must be a reason for Charlie’s resurrection. Rather like Shyamalan’s Signs, at this point Charlie St Cloud lays out message that things happen for a reason, and even tragedies can have silver linings. Charlie’s sixth sense gives him a clue to Tess’s possible whereabouts, but when the search goes on longer than expected, Charlie’s commitment to finding the lost woman requires missing his daily appointment with Sam. The dilemma is cleverly encapsulated in the dialogue, when Charlie’s co-worker Alistair (the charming Augustus Prew) asks Charlie whether he intends to go back or move on – a question that applies not only to the present emergency but also to Charlie’s life in general.
There are a few mis-steps along the way, which we are obviously not supposed to question in the midst of being inspired by the uplifting love story. At one point, Charlie physically interacts with another character on a rather intimate level, only to realize later that the person was present only in spirit – the only indication that Charlie is not able to tell the living from the dead at a glance. The script also makes a major miscalculation in portraying Sam’s death as the result of a car accident; since the opening scenes go to considerable length to depict Charlie as a daredevil sailor who takes too many risks, the logical route would have been for Sam to die in a boating accident caused by his brother – which would have given Charlie more reason for feeling guilty.
Nevertheless, for all of its obvious calculations, Charlie St Cloud is sincere and effective enough in its intentions to win over at least a few cynical hearts.