Review: Ghostlight — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

You will never forget the shatteringly authentic, nakedly heartfelt performances in this deeply moving and stubbornly hopeful story of the healing power of art.

Ghostlight (IFC Films)

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⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

Stars: Keith Kupferer, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Tara Mallen

Writer: Kelly O’Sullivan

Directors: Kelly O’Sullivan, Alex Thompson


You probably don’t know any of the actors in Ghostlight, a family drama set in Chicago and starring a mostly Windy City-based cast. But you will never forget the shatteringly authentic, nakedly heartfelt performances in this deeply moving and stubbornly hopeful story of the healing power of art.

Dan (Keith Kupferer) is a construction worker who, we can tell from the first frame, has a lot on his mind. Early on, we think his biggest problem is his free-spirited, no-filters teenage daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), who is acting out big time at school. But when we follow Dan home, it’s also clear there is a festering crisis between him and his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen) — some unspoken heartbreak that threatens to send this small family spiraling off in three different directions.

After one particularly trying day, Dan wanders into a makeshift storefront theater where a ragtag community group is rehearsing a bare-bones production of Romeo and Juliet. Dan’s no actor — he doesn’t even know how the play ends — yet he finds in this collection of theater geeks a sense of purpose and community he’s missing elsewhere. Before long he’s part of the cast, telling his family he’s out with work buddies when really, he’s off polishing his iambic pentameter.

Still, there’s that unnamed black hole in Dan’s life — the one he refuses to discuss in Daisy’s counseling sessions; the one he cannot bring himself to broach even with Sharon. But as Shakespeare’s universal themes of loss and sorrow unfold in rehearsals, Dan finds a way to explore his own profound sadness without ever having to admit, even to himself, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but there’s a special place in Actor’s Heaven for Kupferer as Dan — an everyman trudging through life, seeing his box of unbearable burdens virtually bursting at the seams. A series of implausible yet believable events lands him in the role of Romeo, a part in which he at first feels understandably ridiculous — but one that he eventually embraces.

At last, on the play’s opening night, when the concentric waves of Dan’s trials and Romeo’s anguish at long last collide, the result is soul-shattering; the kind of big-screen moment that can catapult an actor from obscurity in Chicago to the rarified air of Los Angeles on Oscar night.

A careful reader will note a pattern in those lead actors’ names — Kupferer, Mallen, Mallen Kupferer. They are, in fact a family of actors: parents and daughter. And there’s no nepotism in play here — each one of them forges a uniquely complex character who, nevertheless, fits perfectly into the puzzle of a cohesive family unit. It’s just one of those little miracles that can occasionally fall into the lap of a filmmaker who is perceptive enough to take full advantage of their good fortune.

In this case, make that two filmmakers: Co-directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson gingerly guide their stars — and a finely tuned supporting cast — through a complex, delicately structured screenplay.

The script is written with almost superhuman restraint by O’Sullivan, who lets the mysteries of her characters’ lives unfold in muttered asides and reluctant revelations — literary devices often put to good use by the Bard himself. When the full, awful weight of the family’s burden is finally revealed to us, our reaction is less one of shock than dawning realization.

O’Sullivan’s script is just about perfect, with not a whiff of condescension nor a shadow of manipulation. Even when she uses Shakespeare’s play as a medium for channeling the family’s grief, what could have been an awkward gimmick instead plays as a series of authentic moments, reminders that while art can be an escape from life’s trials, its enduring value is in providing a medium through which to first understand them, and then find a way to carry on.

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