I had an inkling Zac Efron was meant for something more than the part of Troy, the face that launched a thousand and one puberties as the stereotype flouting High School Musical leading man. It was a sneaking suspicion of inevitability spurred by his August 2007 Rolling Stone cover, a G-rated yet suggestive enough shot, which seemed to say “I’m going to take over Hollywood’s high school romcom/dramedy niche market. Your daughters (and, perhaps, sons) are powerless against my sculpted, spray-tanned abs.” I’m sure parents and offspring alike sighed at the sight of Efron—’rents remembering David Cassidy, kids the way Troy gazed at leading lady Gabriella.

So when my roommate suggested we seek refuge from last week’s deluge in the theater with 17 Again, I was curious to see if Efron’s ridiculously pretty face could contort and show emotion—actually act—or if he was just the latest teen tart to be pimped by Disney. Turns out, Efron’s pretty good. Pretty damn good.

In the film’s cheesy-on-purpose opening, where a cheeky Efron jumps from the sidelines of the most important basketball game of his high school career and into a toothy-grinnin’, booty-shakin’ pre-game cheer with the squad (complete with ripaway pants finale), it’s clear Efron knows he owes his role as Mike O’Donnell in Burr Steers‘ (Igby Goes Down) film to his turn as Troy in Disney’s HSM . What’s more, this new Efron is eager to laugh at the old Efron with the rest of us. By the end of the film, with Efron believably bawling about high school sweethearts, Guns ‘N’ Roses concert tees, and second chances to an overshadowed Leslie Mann, I couldn’t believe that my opinion of the film, more so of Efron in the film, was going to be positive.

Boy’s packin’ some seriously delicious chops, and Hollywood’s noticed. In writing Efron’s entry in “The 2009 TIME 100“, Claire Danes recounts working with the 21-year-old back in 2008 on the yet-to-be-released film Me and Orson Welles—sympathizing with the hordes of screaming girls and likening their object of desire to Leonardo DiCaprio. (In the May 2009 issue of GQ, Efron talks about DiCaprio inviting him to lunch, asking questions of the young actor and imparting wisdom.) More interesting, however, is that Danes calls Efron’s performance in the film “breathtaking.”

But few are likely to see Efron’s star rise in Me and Orson Welles, at least not any time soon. Despite wrapping in 2008, the film—directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) and based on the book by Robert Kaplow—has been languishing in the festival circuit. Despite rave reviews from SXSW and Toronto Film Festival screenings, the film has yet to snag a distributor. In September, however, the film will have another shot at attracting a distributor when it plays at the 2009 Woodstock Film Festival.

Me and Orson Welles‘ dogged release is, at least, humorously ironic. In the film, Efron plays bored high schooler and aspiring Broadway star Richard Samuels (familiar?), who, during a chance meeting with Orson Welles, sweet talks his way into the role of Lucius in Welles’ production of Julius Caesar. Cue the sex, lies and betrayal as Samuels navigates the fickle waters of fame and gets burned—badly—in the line of Caesar costar and love interest Sonjia’s (Danes) firey ambition. In GQ, Efron gushes about idol Paul Newman and pines for serious roles, and to be taken seriously in return. Like Samuels, Efron’s ambition—and frustration —is palpable. He may be the next best, brightest young actor, the next DiCaprio, but until Orson Welles sweet talks its way into some sort of distribution deal, Efron will likely languish where he is right now: On the cusp.