Saturday, June 22, 2024

Some Grief Shows Much of Love: GHOSTLIGHT

Ghostlight is a small movie about the redemptive power of theater, and about the powerful effects Shakespeare’s words continue to have in our modern lives. This independent feature emerges from the Chicago theater scene, and as such carries with it a distinctive regional flavor—a directness of approach and an earnest truthfulness in its clear emotional ideas. It’s about a construction worker (Keith Kupferer) who accidentally gets involved in a tiny community theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet. He didn’t mean to get wrapped up in a production so poetic and emotional, especially as it cuts against his usual gruffly taciturn blue-collar bottled-up demeanor. But the ragtag group of friendly misfits (led by Dolly de Leon and local Chicago actors) that make up this little troupe so quickly accepts him and cares for him and enjoys his presence that he just can’t bring himself to stay away from this new community. We slowly get the sense that he’s grieving, as his relationship with his stressed wife (Tara Mallen) feels strained with unspoken sadness, and their daughter (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) is a troubled teen who is pulling away from school, and her own theater dreams, in a spiral of sadness on top of her typical adolescent angst. Writers and directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson draw out the family’s troubles in a slow, withholding style, letting us slowly understand the contours of their disfunction as it relates to grief and tragedy. Ah, so that’s why Romeo and Juliet, of all plays, was chosen for this function in the film, we can consider, as the classic play’s themes of love and loss start to draw some emotional parallels with this family’s life.

That might be too simple or convenient, and the rougher edges around the filmmaking’s humble style direct our attention to the obvious screenwriting tricks at play in teasing out these connections. But the earnestness and sincerity of the filmmaking’s focus on these three main characters often overpowers objections. These three actors, clearly drawing upon their actual familial comfort with each other—how often do a husband, wife, and daughter trio get to play that dynamic on screen?—have the kind of honest interactions that sometimes feel painfully unrehearsed and raw. We see genuine halting, stumbling emotional pain, and we see the painful love struggling to reassert itself in the messiness of mourning. The dialogue might sometimes fall on the side of obvious, but the acting carries across the purity of purpose. That helps the film avoid potential overreach as it finds some honest sentiment in the ways this sad dad’s newfound acting interest might help him process his undiscussed feelings, and draw the family closer together. This isn’t a movie that concludes theater heals all wounds and fixes all flaws. This is a movie that says the deep resonant human truths within Shakespeare’s words can be reinvigorated anew in the hearts of each person willing to give themselves over to that power. It can reawaken bottled up feelings, and force you to confront them in a safe space. That’s what gives the movie’s final moments such power and force, to find a father looking off into the wings, seeing a silhouette in the ghost light, and finding some mysterious, transformative closure.

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