The Spool / Movies
Ghostlight brightens a flawed story to sweet effect
Alex Thompson and Kelly O'Sullivan's comedy-drama makes a cloying premise about the power of theater mostly work with the help of its cast.
SimilarAmélie (2001), Oldboy (2003), The Party (1980), The Party 2 (1982)
MPAA RatingR
6.9
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“I don’t know what normal is,” Dan Muller (Keith Kupferer) says toward the end of Ghostlight. His family might be dramatic, but to him, “they don’t get it from me.” And maybe he’s right. He’s a Chicagoland construction worker whose marriage to Sharon (Tara Mallen) isn’t particularly strong. When they receive a call from their daughter’s (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) school, they learn she’s been expelled for allegedly shoving a teacher. Perhaps it’d be “normal” for 16-year-old Daisy to go through a turbulent phase, but as the movie slowly reveals, the three are reeling from a tragedy.

The movie approaches what happened with a euphemistic ambiguity for almost an hour, even if it’s rather obvious early on. And the stress is accumulating. While preparing for a deposition, Dan berates a pedestrian on the job, resulting in a temporary leave. As chance would have it, though, a stranger named Rita (Dolly De Leon, Triangle of Sadness) witnesses the altercation. And guess what? She’s in a local theater troupe putting on Romeo and Juliet. So, what does this blue-collar, midwestern dad do? Despite not knowing the story, he joins in, which mirrors some stuff he’s still grappling with. It’s funny how that always happens.

It’s a contrived bit of plot in the face of character progression, and not the only time Ghostlight forces itself forward despite trying to feel seamless. How on-the-nose the concept is is another issue. And yet it mostly works, thanks in part to the movie’s tonal and technical normalcy. Kelly O’Sullivan & Alex Thompson’s direction may not leave the starkest impression, but they know how long to hold on a scene. The result welcomes the viewer to see their characters past the occasional issues with O’Sullivan’s script.

There’s an ease to the picture that works with the emotional strain on display rather than in contrast to it. O’Sullivan & Thompson previously collaborated on Saint FrancesGhostlight is the former’s feature directorial debut—and they display a better control of tone here. They let the script breathe. It’s not a long movie at 115 minutes, but its runtime is more than its plot warrants at first blush. It flows at a simple, sometimes literal rhythm, but it’s unassuming in its approach. Mike S. Smith’s editing works moment-to-moment, mainly in the first hour, fleshing out the character work a tighter cut may have lacked.

As such, it can be surprising that it works as well as it does. On paper, it’s obvious, even a little manipulative. What the family has undergone is easy to assume before the script even alludes to it. When it does reveal itself, it skirts up against after-school exploitation, albeit without taking the plunge. Some comparatively lighter aspects, namely Dan’s work leave, come to nothing. He makes a point to say how even a temporary loss of employment will affect him. Nevertheless, it ceases to be an issue once the script reveals larger issues for him.

Yes, the film takes its time, distracting from several of its issues. The cast, however, pushes Ghostlight into territory that works. Keith Kupferer embodies the movie from the inside out, portraying Dan as a man disinterested in, if even aware of, his body language and physical presence. To see Kupferer alter his performance nonverbally as Dan begins acting is one thing. How he eschews regional or class-based stereotypes throughout his approach to the character is another. Elsewhere, De Leon anchors the troupe from floating too far into the film’s peripheries as Rita forges a bond with Daisy.

It’s all necessary to help contextualize how the film approaches its central, sometimes cloying, conflict. As the family acknowledges their past, the script sanitizes their hardships. The power of theater, finding art just like one’s reality, the coincidences that move these characters forward—not everything about Ghostlight feels organic. It’s too literal and, ultimately, straightforward. When it reveals what befell the trio and introduces another character into the mix, the movie barely keeps it from feeling like an afterthought. If it didn’t take its time for the first hour as it does, it may have fallen apart. But it doesn’t.

It’s not a revelation (although maybe Keith Kupferer is). At some of its best moments, it’s that “normal” Dan alludes to. At its worst, it resembles something trite, and the script tends to rely on characters being where they need to be for the narrative to propel itself. But Ghostlight wears its modesty to healthy effect, the cast solidifying what works. Once the curtain has fallen, it’s something of a wonder it works as much as it does.

Ghostlight hits theaters June 14th.

Ghostlight Trailer:

SimilarAmélie (2001), Oldboy (2003), The Party (1980), The Party 2 (1982)
MPAA RatingR