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Weak vessel for Efron's ambition

His latest film marks a rise, and a dip, on Zac Efron's creative trajectory. Moving beyond high-school roles and away from the song-and-dance silliness of "Hairspray" and "High School Musical," he takes a confident half-step toward becoming a mature romantic lead. The film itself? Not so good.

“Charlie St. Cloud” is a lesser, over-sentimental effort that incorporates love, family drama, bereavement, comedy, seagoing adventure and mystical uplift, like a Baskin-Robbins cone precariously balancing all 31 flavors. The nice thing about it is that Efron is not relying on his looks, like a junior varsity Ben Affleck.

Charlie is a champion sailor heading to Stanford University on an athletic scholarship when a horrible mistake ruins his dreams. His promising future crushed, Charlie signs on as caretaker of the local cemetery.

He’s locked in his head, lonely, unable to connect and devastatingly hot. Who will rescue this , emotionally withdrawn dreamboat?

Could it be feisty, beautiful Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew), his onetime classmate who plans to be one of the first women to sail solo around the globe?

Who saves whom and how is one of the film’s secrets, but fans of “Titanic” and “Ghost” will get the feeling they’re watching a double feature.

Playing the misguided Charlie, it’s clear Efron’s working at becoming something more than catnip for the Hot Topic crowd. He’s downplaying his natural confidence, trying on dark, complicated emotions for size. You have to respect the ambition behind the effort.

Director Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down”) captures the weathered beauty of a New England seaside community, with its blue-collar coffee shops and townie saloons. And he captures the peach-cheeked good looks of his star in countless amber-tinted sunset close-ups. Efron and Charlie Tahan, who plays his cheeky 11-year-old brother, have the best acting moments, demonstrating a likably cantankerous chemistry.

The other actors fare poorly. Crews is an underdeveloped love interest. Ray Liotta and Kim Basinger are squandered in cameos.

But then we must understand this project for what it is, a mainstream star vehicle for a matinee idol who sets teen hearts aflutter.

'CHARLIE ST. CLOUD'

** 1/2 I I

Cast: Zac Efron, Charlie Tahan, Amanda Crew, Ray Liotta, Kim Basinger

Director: Burr Steers

Rated: PG-13; language including sexual references, an intense accident scene, sensuality

Running time: 1:49

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