Getting impatient for Kenneth Lonergan to get his act together and make another great movie? Ghostlight should scratch that itch and more besides, being a funny, intelligent and yet at times almost unbearably sad movie that takes a searing family tragedy and spins it into a riveting redemption story that, while a little predictable in the more familiar second half, somehow never hits a false note. Although technically an ensemble piece, with a lovely cast of supporting players whose thespian antics will ring a bell with actors of all generations, it rests squarely on a powerhouse performance from Chicago stage veteran Keith Kupferer, whose career must surely about to enter a whole new phase, perhaps to the fill the void left by the late, great Brian Dennehy.
Directed by Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, who caused a splash at SXSW in 2019 with Saint Frances, Ghostlight opens with a curtain-up, as construction worker Dan Mueller faces another grim morning digging holes in Chicago’s busy streets. Dan has a lot on his mind, mostly his daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), who has been summoned to the principal’s office for hitting a teacher. Dan and his wife Sharon (Tara Mallen) are at their wits’ end, since Daisy, a smart and talented 16-year-old, is clearly troubled, lashing out verbally and physically at everyone around her. She can’t even be kind to her mother’s after-school drama club, sneering, “None of these kids have star quality,” as the exuberant cast begin their charmingly inelegant revue.
More from Deadline
As will soon become clear, Dan has issues too, a bear of a man who hides his physicality until it explodes in bursts of genuinely alarming rage. The inevitable happens when an arrogant boy racer yells at him to get out of his way, and Dan pulls him out of the car with his bare hands. The red mist clears and the driver takes off, yelling, “Good luck finding another menial job,” like the asshole he clearly is. He’s going to put the fix in, but when? While Dan is wondering when the hammer will fall, he sees a familiar face from the rundown theatre over the road. Rita (Dolly De Leon) has been watching him and calls him in to replace an actor who just quit (“Everyone is replaceable,” she barks). “What’s this?” says Dan. “Your salvation,” says Rita, a woman who sees more than she lets on.
Ghostlight, rather like Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea but a tad shorter, takes its time to reveal what Dan’s got going on his mind, why Daisy is behaving the way she is and why Sharon is exhausted with the pair of them, a feat of screen magic enabled by the casting of the real-life Kupferer family in those three roles. It sustains miraculously, and even though the second half becomes a little more on the nose, in terms of reality and fiction, O’Sullivan has a way of wrong-footing us, using dark humor where there might otherwise be sentimentality, and making Dan’s inner rage a very palpable thing that could upset the apple cart at any moment. Though the production of Romeo and Juliet obviously has to be shown, it takes up a fair portion of the second half, which may inspire audiences to follow Daisy’s suggestion and have a quick rewatch of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie (“It’s old but it’s good,” she says, with the impudence of youth).
The incongruity of hi-viz-jacket Dan and the luvvy world of theater is played, initially, for laughs, at a table read of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Dan is a fish out of water, but so is everyone else there (“It’s like the island of misfit toys, isn’t it?” Rita whispers, as the actors run through their exercises). Meanwhile, at home, it’s clear that something bigger is brewing than Dan’s impending unemployment, as Dan and Sharon talk cryptically of a deposition coming down the line. It will be a full hour before O’Sullivan’s terrific script reveals what the Muellers’ secret is, but it soon becomes clear that Dan is not just drawn to the company of strangers in their charmingly off-kilter world of make-believe, he is also mulling over the play’s meaning, about the senseless loss of two young lives: if he can make sense of Shakespeare’s text, maybe he can lay his demons to rest.
The denouement also makes less use of the wonderful De Leon, so marvelous in Ruben Östlund’s 2022 Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness. De Leon is the impish heart and soul of Ghostland, literally taking Dan in off the street for the sake of his own sanity. “You might want a chance of being someone else for a while,” she tells him, mindful that the therapeutic effects of art cost nothing amid the grifts of today’s ever more expensive world.
Festival (Section): Sundance (Premieres)
Sales agent: Cinetic
Directors: Kelly O’Sullivan, Alex Thompson
Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan
Cast: Keith Kupferer, Dolly De Leon, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Tara Mallen
Running time: 1 hr 55 min
Best of Deadline