Ghostlight (2024)

Ghostlight Review


Thespians get therapy from live theater in “Ghostlight,” a let’s-put-on-a-show-style indie appropriately made during last year’s actors strike that serves as the sensitive, if considerably more conservative-minded, follow-up to “Saint Frances” for screenwriter Kelly O’Sullivan and co-director (and partner) Alex Thompson. A family shattered by its eldest son’s suicide employs a community theater production of “Romeo and Juliet” to wrestle with emotions they haven’t been able to talk about at home.

O’Sullivan has an innate ability to tell stories and a gift for comedy. Here, she takes elements that crop up regularly in Sundance Film Festival dramas grieving families, difficult teens, small-town communities and assembles them into something surprising and moving. (No wonder this film was invited to premiere at Park City.) Some may call that manipulative, except it’s engineered in such a way that the manipulation feels earned. Thompson and O’Sullivan hold certain information until just the right time, while introducing others early on so they can pay off later like when we see kids performing in a school pageant about how to deal with anger and other strong feelings.

We don’t know when we meet Dan Mueller (Keith Kupferer) that he has trouble controlling his anger or that this blue-collar dad is dealing with tragedy at work. Dan does construction; he spends his days jackhammering concrete. At home, he keeps everything inside. Something has died between him and his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), since their son killed himself (the details of which are withheld until late in the movie but echo “Romeo and Juliet”). He still loves Sharon, but they’re growing apart.

Even more worrisome, their 15-year-old daughter Daisy (played by Katherine Mallen Kupferer) is acting up at school. Suspended from class, she agrees to see a therapist. But all three Muellers could use some counseling, and that’s where “Ghostlight” comes in. After freaking out and nearly choking someone at work, Dan gets an unexpected invitation from a spunky onlooker named Rita (Dolly de Leon), who asks him to join their ragtag Shakespeare production.

It’s not just convenient but necessary for the story that Dan doesn’t know the plot of “Romeo and Juliet.” But his daughter sure does; when he asks about it, she recites the play’s prologue and shows him the Baz Luhrmann version on her laptop. She’d surely connect Romeo’s fate with her brother’s, but “Ghostlight” needs certain revelations to drop at specific moments. Thompson and O’Sullivan are surely allowed a little poetic license by Shakespeare himself.

Dan’s freezing up all the time this guy is not a good actor and still he keeps on showing up at rehearsal every afternoon. He said that what he likes about this theater company is that people don’t look at him strange he can’t stand the pitying looks he gets at work or Sharon’s school. So when Dan loses it one day in “practice,” and tells them what’s been happening to him, everyone comes over and hugs him. Hugs him hard.

It’s like everywhere else in his life is so harsh, but here they can pretend. And he responds to that, and the notion settles into his bones even if he doesn’t always know how it works.

“It’s supposed to be fake. But the feelings can feel real sometimes,” Daisy says, after her dad reveals a secret (she thought it was an affair). Dan claims he didn’t want to say anything because he was embarrassed about sneaking out to act which could be true; you wouldn’t exactly expect some giant dude like this to get recruited for Shakespeare in the first place. Also none of them look anything like their parts: Not even Rita, who has this nasal cartoon voice and weighs maybe a fifth of what Dan does she hardly comes up to his shoulder but swap roles right up until the big night.

So Daisy decides to join too, steps in as Mercutio.

And then something happens once they start performing. Like “Romeo and Juliet” might be Shakespeare’s most famous play, but lines have never meant quite this much coming out of anybody’s mouth before. And all of a sudden so many things are different for Dan in the limelight; especially all of his regrets (he couldn’t save his son from killing himself) … They just look different under those lights.

Because suddenly Dan has to empathize with somebody who kills himself for love, and so when Romeo dies again tonight? It’s like he gets it this time. He gets it, and he forgives.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: Any critic sitting out there tonight would probably roll their eyes right out of their head at all these personal catharses. But from here? If you can hear a story told this beautifully?

Watch Ghostlight For Free On Gomovies.

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