Zac Efron all grown up in “Me and Orson Welles”

“Former heartthrobs can fall far when they attempt to make the leap into the big leagues,” CNN declares in a story about “High School Musical” star Zac Efron.

Maybe so, but many Disney Channel tweens have often gone on to successful adult careers. There’s Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, to name a few. But while Disney’s programming may not have crossover appeal, the cable network’s knack for finding and nurturing young talent is unparalleled.

Any insinuation that Efron won’t make it to the big leagues reflects thinking that isn’t big enough.

“Geez, the small mindedness around here!” his character in “Me and Orson Welles” might say.

Indeed, Efron’s turn in “Me and Orson Welles” is proof he not only can crossover into adult entertainment, but that his presence will be a welcome one. Efron, after all, isn’t just a pretty face, like say, Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, who thus far seems richer in looks than in talent. Efron has both genetic goods and he’s a polished performer—maybe too polished—as his every expression sparkles with intent.

After a recent screening, ‘Orson’ director Richard Linklater told the audience, “Zac’s a leading man, a gifted performer. I would never underestimate him,” adding, “he’s a poker player—he’ll take your money.”

There is no shortage of irony in the parallels between Efron and his character, Richard Samuels, a teenage boy who wants to ditch school for a glamorous acting career. Richard’s journey from schoolboy to accomplished actor in many ways mirrors Efron’s own coming of age.

Cocksure and vulnerable at the same time, you can watch Efron grow up on the screen.

After Richard talks his way into Orson Welles’ production of “Julius Caesar,” he gets into trouble with his mother for sneaking home after midnight. When the older guys on set mess around, discussing their various exploits, Richard listens as if being instructed.

Claire Danes plays Richard’s love interest, Sonja Jones, whose stop-at-nothing ambition precludes her from getting entangled in a real romance. But Richard doesn’t stop trying.

“So what’s it like to be a beautiful woman?” he asks.

“Oh I hate the way I look,” she replies. “I’m a catalog of faults.”

“Name me one fault,” he challenges.

“My left breast is smaller than my right,” she says.

“Have you got a ruler?”

When Sonja rejects him for an older man who promises her a promotion, Richard is incredulous. “He’s old,” he says, repulsed.

“He’s offering a managerial position,” she explains. “What are you offering?”

“Wealth, travel, fame,” he says. “I can take you to moves that have all that.”

The way Efron delivers that line, with bright blue eyes and a sly smile, you actually begrudge Danes’s character for rejecting him.

Efron’s scenes with the stellar Christian McKay, whose portrayal of Welles is uncanny, explode with tension and repartee. In each other, Welles and his protege have met their match. Though they are years apart, Samuels has proven himself every bit Welles’ equal.

And in real life, Efron can celebrate his graduation from high school.