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Paul Asay

Movie Review

OK, it’s a little tired by now, but there’s really nowhere else to start. So I’ll just come right out and say it: Charlie sees dead people.

Not that he minds. The dead he hangs with don’t wail or rattle chains or ride through the woods hurtling pumpkins. Charlie’s primary visitor is Sam, his younger brother—wearing his Red Sox hat, baseball glove and a look of sad expectation. And there’s no face in the world Charlie would rather see.

Back when both were among the living, the newly graduated Charlie made Sam a promise: He’d practice baseball with him for an hour at sunset each evening until he left for college on a sailing scholarship. Nothing would interfere with practice, Charlie promised: “Not hell or high water.” And for Sam—still struggling with the fact that their father deserted them, and scared to death that Charlie might leave, too—that promise meant everything.

Sam died in a car crash over summer break—one that almost killed Charlie, too. But to Charlie, Sam wasn’t quite dead yet. Charlie would find him in the woods near the cemetery at sunset, waiting to play catch. And so they would—and talk and wrestle and laugh. Never mind that no one else could see Sam, he was so real—not a ghost, not a flimsy apparition you might catch glimpses of on The History Channel. In that hour at sunset, it was like his little brother never left. Charlie could still keep his promise.

So Charlie gives up sailing, defers college and begins working, and living, at the cemetery, plotting his life around those sunset practices. Five years later, he’s still at it. No longer one of the town’s most promising young athlete/scholars, Charlie’s now that “weird St. Cloud kid,” the one who never mentally recovered from that horrible accident.

“You didn’t die in that car crash, Charlie,” someone tells him.

“Actually,” Charlie whispers to himself, “I did.”

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

When Sam’s alive, Charlie proves to be a pretty cool big brother. He understands Sam’s anxiety about being abandoned again, and he tries to devote as much time as he can to the boy before he leaves for Stanford. He’s a quasi-father figure—one Sam desperately needs.

But if Charlie’s devotion to his sibling is impressive before death, it becomes pretty extreme after it. Charlie’s apparently determined to never, ever break his promise to Sam—that they’ll play catch every day at sunset—even at the expense of fulfilling what he once wanted for his own life.

Naturally, the way this relationship manifests itself feels like supernatural codependency: Charlie keeps Sam from “moving on,” while Sam guilts Charlie into cutting short his own dreams and relationships. But the intent behind it—the promise—is admirable.

Charlie’s priorities slowly shift when he begins seeing Tess, a beautiful young woman planning to sail around the world. Tess pulls Charlie into a semblance of normalcy and, while that hurts Sam on some level, it’s certainly better for Charlie in the long run. And that’s why it’s a very positive thing for Charlie to put both his life and his promise to Sam at risk to save Tess when she runs into some serious trouble.

Spiritual Elements

With a name like Charlie St. Cloud (a real Catholic saint, by the way, the patron saint of nail-makers) and with a plot pinned on the living dead, you’d have to expect there’d be a bit of spirituality to deal with. Charlie nearly died in the crash that killed Sam. It was only through the heroic efforts of a paramedic named Florio—and, we can assume, the Almighty—that Charlie pulled through. Florio wears an amulet depicting St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, and when Charlie revives, Florio grasps it in his hands and kisses it. He believes he was part of a genuine, heaven-sent miracle.

Later, when Charlie and Florio meet again, Florio asks Charlie what he’s done with his second chance. “You must think about why [you were saved],” Florio says. Turns out, Charlie hasn’t. Not really. But Florio—himself stricken with cancer—insists that Charlie was spared for a reason. “God doesn’t just show off,” he says. “Don’t squander this gift you’ve been given.” He talks about the importance of living a full life before you go to meet St. Peter. After Florio dies, his widow gives the St. Jude medal to Charlie, telling him that it holds the answer to why he was saved.

Charlie thinks he understands—and he leaps into action to save Tess, who has been lost at sea. “There’s no such thing as a lost cause,” Charlie says. And, with the seeming help of a mysterious streak of light in the sky (“Sam?” Charlie asks), Charlie saves her.

Charlie St. Cloud posits that there’s some sort of heaven, too, Charlie sees one of his deceased friends apparently on his way there, telling Charlie that he’ll say hi to Sam. (Charlie quietly says, “He’s not there.”) Sam, still earthbound, is not so sure there is a heaven, and he worries that if Charlie stops visiting him, he’ll simply cease to exist. Eventually he grasps what the movie delivers as “truth”: Happy memories flash before Sam’s eyes as he runs into light. And when he returns for a good-bye visit, he tells Charlie that it’s “beyond anything you could ever imagine.”

We see Sam being buried during a Christian ceremony.

Sexual Content

Tess and Charlie’s relationship culminates in a romantic interlude in the cemetery. They kiss, Tess strips off Charlie’s shirt and the two lie down in the grass. The camera leaves them for a time, then returns as Tess and Charlie talk—afterwards.

Charlie walks around without a shirt. Tess wears low-cut tops. At one point, we see her in just a bra. Charlie shows his dead brother pictures of Tess, printed in a sailing magazine. “Is there a swimsuit shot?” asks Sam—who is played by 12-year-old Charlie Tahan. When Sam tries to pull the magazine away, Charlie says to stop, because he might wreck it. “I’m going to wreck it. I’m going to wreck it repeatedly,” Sam says, in what can be interpreted as a sly reference to masturbation. One of Charlie’s friends also alludes to masturbation. And Charlie jokingly tells his brother to “blow me.”

Charlie’s friend Alistair wants to introduce Charlie to a waitress he knows, who’s a “little bit saucy, a little bit promiscuous.” Alistair also embarks on a drunken makeout session with his main squeeze on top of a bar during their “anniversary” party.

Violent Content

The car accident, shown twice, is pretty hard to take. The first time, we see the accident from the perspective of the boys: We hear a crunch as a car rear-ends them, pushing them into traffic. We see the headlights of a massive truck barreling in. Just before the truck strikes, our perspective shifts—to the shattered car, where Charlie’s cradling Sam as Sam begs Charlie not to leave him. Then we’re in the back of an ambulance as Florio works on a bloodied Charlie. (We see Sam’s lifeless arm.)

The second time we sit through the crash, we watch the truck actually hit the car, sending the smashed vehicle tumbling down the street.

Charlie and a former rival get into a pushing match at a bar. The fight culminates with Charlie punching the guy in the face. Sam accidentally hits Charlie hard in the crotch with a baseball. Tess apparently gets hit in the head during a sailing trip, and we see a nasty-looking cut on her forehead. Charlie and Alistair fight with Tess’ sailing coach, eventually pinning the man to the floor.

Tess is nearly killed in a boating accident. Charlie finds her washed up on some rocks.

Crude or Profane Language

One partial f-word, four s-words and several uses of “h‑‑‑,” a‑‑,” “b–ch,” “b‑‑tard” and “d‑‑k.” God’s name is misused three or four times, and Sam lets out a “Jeez.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

When Charlie and Sam get into their accident, Charlie’s driving to a going-away “kegger” party for one of his friends. (Since they all just graduated high school, we can assume that most of the attendees are underage.) At the party and elsewhere, we see several young adults drink wine, beer, champagne and other alcoholic beverages. Charlie gets drunk on whiskey.

Other Negative Elements

Charlie’s cemetery is plagued by a small band of geese whose poop corrodes the tombstones, and Charlie’s almost at constant war with them. When he tries to fend the birds off with a model airplane, the geese let loose a barrage of scat. Sam and Charlie dive into a lake to avoid it. Sam and Alistair, in order to save someone’s life, set out to steal a boat. (Its owner, after a little rough convincing, agrees to sail with them). Charlie sneaks out of the house. Tess, despite urgent warnings from her coach, sails directly into a storm.


Charlie St. Cloud, from its improbable love story to its hunky leading man (Zac Efron) was built to appeal to tween and teen girls. Efron’s onscreen for almost the entire film, smiling roguishly, crying sensitively and flexing his biceps muscularly. In the end, when Charlie holds his hand out to someone (I shan’t say who) to join him on the boat, the camera tellingly focuses on his hand—suggesting that it’s you Charlie’s beckoning. Cue swoon.

Now, Efron is a good leading man for this sort of thing, and the payoff is all warm and fuzzy—the way more movies used to be. And Charlie St. Cloud touches on something that, for most of us, is pretty universal: Saying good-bye is tough. So in that sense, Charlie gets a unique opportunity—one that we, in the audience, see as both the blessing and the curse that it is.

But a sexual romp through the cemetery and scenes at a bar knock down the film’s accessibility a notch or two, particularly when you factor in its youthful target audience. And the spirituality, despite its nod to both Christian saints and a beautiful afterlife, is a bit hazy, cloudy one might say.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.