By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 28, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Diyah Pera

Zac Efron may be the prettiest young actor in movies today — he’s like a preppy update of Shaun Cassidy in his teen-dream prime — but he also demonstrates that looks will get you only so far. As the title golden boy of Charlie St. Cloud, Efron plays a small-town competitive sailor whose beloved little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), gets killed in a car crash. (Charlie was at the wheel.) It doesn’t take long to figure out that Charlie dies too — at least in spirit. Instead of heading off to Stanford to realize his dream of becoming a sailing champion, he stays home, going to work at the local graveyard. He’s so ruled by guilt and despair that he imagines he’s talking to ghosts — like that of his late brother, whom he ”keeps alive” by meeting him every day at the exact same clearing in the woods to play baseball.

The surreal thing is, Zac Efron can’t do despair. He plays it by staring. Blankly. And by not smiling. Blankly. Those sky blue eyes of his may be moody, but in Charlie St. Cloud they have only one mood — a fake-profound, lost-idol tranquillity. Instead of making you weep, he puts you in a coma. Charlie St. Cloud is as wholesome as a Miley Cyrus movie, only without the energy. It’s like the religio-kitsch version of a TV tragedy-of-the-week. Charlie starts to hang out with a girl tailor-made for him (Amanda Crew, who’s like a text-generation Anne Hathaway), but he can’t be with her until he lets go of the past and says goodbye to his ghosts. Efron, you can tell, is trying to get beyond his past, but one or two more movies like this one and High School Musical 4 will be beckoning. C-

See all of this week’s reviews