The first time I saw 'High School Musical', my eyes glazed over Zac Efron and his co-star Vanessa Hudgens. I simply assumed, as many did at the time, that Efron and his castmates were Disney products, people who would fade away over time and never really make that big an impact on Hollywood. When 'HSM 2' and 'HSM 3' were released, I figured my suspicions were confirmed.

But at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, I caught wind of Richard Linklater's ('Dazed and Confused', 'Waking Life', 'The School of Rock') latest - 'Me and Orson Welles'. Co-starring another big-name actor who was famous in her teens -- Claire Danes -- I approached the film with some trepidation. A movie about theatre in the late 1930s? Sounds like a yawner. The first time I saw 'High School Musical', my eyes glazed over Zac Efron and his co-star Vanessa Hudgens. I simply assumed, as many did at the time, that Efron and his castmates were Disney products, people who would fade away over time and never really make that big an impact on Hollywood. When 'HSM 2' and 'HSM 3' were released, I figured my suspicions were confirmed.

But at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, I caught wind of Richard Linklater's ('Dazed and Confused', 'Waking Life', 'The School of Rock') latest - 'Me and Orson Welles'. Co-starring another big-name actor who was famous in her teens -- Claire Danes -- I approached the film with some trepidation. A movie about theatre in the late 1930s? Sounds like a yawner.

I took a look at the rest of the cast and my eyes froze on Efron's name. I wrongly assumed he'd be singing and dancing his way through the movie, but as I watched the trailer I realized he was taking on an acting role, and a serious one at that. Sure he dances a little, and he sings a very short ditty at the end (which is actually charming and beautifully sung), but mostly it is Efron acting, and believe it or not, he shines.

He plays a confused 17-year-old, Richard Samuels, who's infatuated with the world of artistry in all its forms -- movies, theatre, music -- which isn't really that big a stretch for the triple-threat Efron. He skips school a lot, often to wander through the streets of post-Depression New York City, day-dreaming and flashing his baby blues to passing women. By chance, he runs into famed writer-director Orson Welles outside the legendary Mercury Theatre, and is cast in his production of 'Julius Caesar' based on his ability to play a drum roll (a bit ridiculous, yes, but touching).



Richard is swept up in the world of theatre, and learns valuable lessons about the fleetingness of fame, love, and reputation. At once a commentary on contemporary Hollywood and the question of what makes art itself, Efron's wide-eyed portrayal is spot-on. Linklater's nod to the Keats poem 'An Ode on a Grecian Urn' makes clear his film's point: Gazing upon an art form provides an infinite number of perspectives, but when you're actually immersed in it, it becomes something quite different.

Buttressed by the ever-pleasing Danes, whose character Sonja Jones stops at nothing to catch her "big break'," and unknown Christian McKay, who absolutely excels at his Orson Welles characterization, Efron appears as a virginal young bud blossoming under tender care. His baby face, on the verge of adult maturation, is incredibly expressive and charming, no matter how much you try to resist.

In real life, if Efron is nurtured properly, he could be the next huge thing, a true actor who's moved beyond the realm of posters in little girls' rooms.

As mentioned earlier, he's a triple threat : he can sing, dance, and act. Lord knows what he would have accomplished if he was born in an earlier era, when musical theatre was the "bee's knees". Even still, 'Me and Orson Welles' displays the potential in Efron. Here's hoping he stays away from more teenage tripe ... yes, I'm talking about '17 Again'. His only impediment to that next level may indeed be himself.
CATEGORIES Reviews