Efron grows up with help from the Igby guy

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The vagaries of the U.S. film industry — whether the super-sized Hollywood variety or indie-scale — are as mystifying today as they were 20 or even 30 years ago.

Take Burr Steers. He began his career as an actor (he was in The Last Days of Disco and Pulp Fiction) before segueing into life as a writer-director. He made waves with his splendid, J.D. Salinger-influenced 2002 debut Igby Goes Down, but struggled for years to find backing for a follow-up project. Like many indie talents (Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, et al.), Steers took the odd director-for-hire cable gig (Big Love, Weeds, The L Word) to pay the rent. But a big-screen comeback seemed elusive.

Then Steers finally got a chance when he was tapped to helm Zac Efron's 2009 Big knockoff 17 Again. Surprisingly, the movie turned out a lot better than anyone expected. Instead of a cheese-ball sitcom exploiting the High School Musical star's tweener fan base, Steers made a tender, ruefully funny comedy that — wonder of wonders — actually made money. At least enough cash to land Steers a second major studio gig: Charlie St. Cloud, which also stars Efron and opens on Friday.

The ironic part is that Steers now seems in danger of being labeled Efron's "house director." It's too early to call Steers and Efron's director-star partnership a junior-league version of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio's frequent pairings. Steers is gifted, but he's no Scorsese. And while Efron has turned out to be a more formidable talent than his stint as a Teen Beat pinup might have suggested, he still hasn't pulled a What's Eating Gilbert Grape out of his hat.

But for now it seems like a win-win situation for both: Efron gets to remind everyone that he's more than just a pretty face; Steers keeps banking the studio bucks and proving his range as a filmmaker.

Even so, Charlie St. Cloud looks like Nicholas Sparks Lite. Efron plays a conflicted young man whose allegiance to his deceased kid brother prevents him from moving on with his life. But if anyone can excise the treacle from such schmaltzy-sounding material, it's the acerbic Steers. Need proof? Check out Igby Goes Down to see how it's done.Send feedback to [email protected].

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