Live theater serves a therapeutic role for the actors involved in “Ghostlight,” an emotional “let’s put on a show”-style indie that, fittingly enough, came together during last year’s actors strike. The sensitive — but also considerably more conservative — follow-up project for “Saint Frances” screenwriter Kelly O’Sullivan and co-director (and partner) Alex Thompson celebrates the healing power of art, as a family shaken by its eldest son’s suicide uses a community theater production of “Romeo and Juliet” to work through emotions they haven’t been able to discuss openly at home.
O’Sullivan has a natural storytelling gift, coupled with a knack for comedy. Here, she takes elements that feature regularly in Sundance Film Festival dramas — grieving families, difficult teens, small-town communities — and rearranges them into a surprising and moving narrative. (Small wonder that the film was invited to premiere in Park City.) Some might reject that approach as being manipulative, except it’s calibrated in such a way that the elements seem earned. Thompson and O’Sullivan hold certain details until precisely the right time, while others are introduced early on in ways that pay off later — as in a school pageant where the kids demonstrate how to deal with anger and other strong feelings.
More from Variety
We don’t realize it when we meet Dan Mueller (Keith Kupferer) that he has trouble managing his temper, or that this blue-collar dad is dealing with a major tragedy in his own life. Dan works construction, spending his days jackhammering concrete. At home, he’s the stoic, silent type. Something seems to have died in his marriage since his son’s suicide (the specifics of which are withheld till late in the film, but which resonate with the plot of “Romeo and Juliet”). He still loves his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), but they’re drifting apart.
Even more concerning, Dan and Sharon’s 15-year-old daughter, Daisy (played by Kupferer and Mallen’s real-life daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer), is acting out at school. Suspended from class, she agrees to see a therapist. But all three of the Mueller family members could use counseling, which is where the plot of “Ghostlight” kicks in. After flipping out and nearly strangling someone on the job, Dan gets a surprising offer from a spunky eyewitness named Rita (Dolly de Leon), who asks him to join their scrappy Shakespeare production.
However hard to accept, it’s not just convenient but essential to the story that Dan doesn’t know the plot of “Romeo and Juliet.” Yet his daughter certainly does, reciting the play’s prologue when asked about it and showing him the Baz Luhrmann version on her laptop. Surely she would make the connection between Romeo’s fate and her brother’s tragic outcome, but “Ghostlight” needs certain revelations to fall at specific moments. Surely Shakespeare would appreciate Thompson and O’Sullivan allowing themselves a bit of poetic license.
While Keith Kupferer is a very strong actor, the same cannot be said for Dan, who’s constantly freezing up. He’s embarrassed to be performing, and yet, something draws him back to rehearsals every afternoon. To hear him tell it, Dan appreciates that the members of this theater troupe don’t look at him strangely (he can hardly stand the pitiful gazes he gets at work or the school where Sharon teaches). When he erupts at “practice” one day, Dan shares what he’s been through, and the ensemble gathers round for a moving group hug. Surrounded by harsh reality everywhere else in his life, Dan also responds to the notion that he and the cast can pretend, even if he doesn’t always understand how that works.
“It’s supposed to be fake. But the feelings can feel real sometimes,” Daisy tells him, after discovering her father’s secret (she’d assumed he was cheating on her mother). Dan claims he was too embarrassed to admit he was sneaking out to act, which seems plausible, even if it’s hard to imagine a giant fellow like this being recruited to do Shakespeare in the first place. Then again, none of the actors — not even Rita, who’s a fraction of his size, with a nasal, almost cartoonish voice — look the part of their stage roles, which serves as a running joke as they swap parts right up until the big night.
Daisy even decides to join, stepping in to play Mercutio. And then something remarkable happens once the performance begins. “Romeo and Juliet” may be one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, and yet, the Bard’s lines take on fresh meaning as father and daughter recite them. So many of Dan’s regrets — especially his inability to prevent his son’s suicide — look different in the limelight. Forced to empathize with a character who takes his own life for love, Dan starts to understand and forgive. Any critic sitting through their show probably wouldn’t have much patience for all the characters’ personal catharses, but seen from the right distance, as beautifully told as this, the experience amounts to something special.
Best of Variety