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Charlie St. Cloud

Zac Efron squints into golden sunlight amid the trappings of a tragic heartthrob in this canned spiritual weeper.

© Universal Pictures After the death of his brother Sam, right, Charlie St. Cloud lives for sunsets, when he meets up with his little brother’s spirit.

Charlie (Efron: High School Musical) was the golden boy of his small coastal sailing town until his little brother Sam (Charlie Tahan: Nights in Rodanthe) died in an accident. Now Charlie, once a champion sailor, is moored at the local cemetery as groundskeeper. He lives only for sunsets, when he can meet up with his little brother’s spirit in a nearby glade and play catch. His mystical attachment is tested when Charlie falls for Tess (Amanda Crew: The Haunting in Connecticut), an alluring sailor girl who dares him to finally move on — to choose her is to lose the connection with his brother. What is he to do?

Charlie St. Cloud is adapted from the novel by Ben Sherwood and serves up plenty of tried-and-true melodramatic devices, easily recognizable for anyone remotely wise to Nicholas Sparks. It’s all familiar manipulation, but at least it’s woven into a decent framework. The ghostly connection to Sam presents a unique dilemma and sets up a mildly surprising twist. The brotherly relationship at center is well developed. regatta sport sets a smart scene, and the graveyard gig plays neatly into the ghostly theme.

Filling out the framework proves trouble. Director Burr Steers (17 Again) does little to evolve Charlie’s character. Romance suffers clumsy execution. Chemistry is put off by a sloppy setup and a rush to the first kiss. Scripting is weak, like some vague adolescent fantasy. The film has every idea of where it wants to be but no idea of how to get there. This is especially evident in the climax, as the writers struggle to write their way out of the twist.

Such summary treatment helps kill character. Charlie, for his part, knows how to look wholesome and to weep like a pro. His brother Sam at least comes off well in the ribbing, even if he does go vacant in dialogue. Otherwise, the cast is hollow. Charlie’s closest live friend, some young British coworker, is little more than tousled curls and an accent. Ray Liotta, who’s there to interject with life-changing wisdom, is utterly forgettable. Charlie’s chief rival is pointless, a rich jerk who appears only twice to say the perfectly wrong thing at the perfectly right time to merit a punch to the face.

Still, it could be you don’t care. Fans of Zac Efron will be pleased by a plenitude of handsome poses and empathy. He comes off very pretty and wholesome, and that may be enough. Fans of the genre will probably tear up. For everyone else, though, this is just that much more Hallmark schlock.

Poor tearjerker • PG-13 • 109 mins.