Dolly De Leon (left) and Keith Kupferer in "Ghostlight."

Review: 'Ghostlight' is an Overly Sincere Ode to Art and Community

C.J. Prince READ TIME: 3 MIN.

Improbable might be the first word that comes to mind when describing the story of "Ghostlight," the new drama directed by couple Kelly O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson (who also made 2019's underrated "Saint Frances"). Following a construction worker who somehow gets roped into a community theater troupe's production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" that winds up changing his and his family's lives, the film is relentless in its sincere celebration of the transformative power of art and community. But as precious and borderline mawkish as "Ghostlight" can be, its earnestness goes a long way to making the saccharine moments go down easy.

Part of it might have to do with the production, which reflects much of the film's values; a fact that one wouldn't know without reading up on the film, but it goes a long way with explaining some of its scrappy charms. Shot on a low budget during the 2023 Hollywood strikes (the film received a waiver by the actors' union), the film opens on Dan (Keith Kupferer) as he heads to work on a construction site. There's distance between Dan and his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen, Kupferer's wife), and their teenage daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Kupferer and Mallen's daughter), is on thin ice at high school after several violent outbursts. Mentions of an upcoming deposition hint at a tragic incident in the family's past, and the fractured lines of communication between the three of them show that they haven't gotten over whatever happened.

Enter Rita (Dolly De Leon), an assertive, foul-mouthed actor whose theater troupe rehearses across from the construction site where Dan works. After she watches Dan get into an altercation with a reckless driver, she tricks him into filling in for an actor during a readthrough of "Romeo and Juliet." Suddenly he finds himself cast in the play, which he surprisingly embraces, as it gives him an outlet away from the stresses of his family life. He keeps his side gig a secret from his wife and daughter, although it doesn't take long for them to find out and find their own ways into the production.

It's a hokey setup, and plenty of moments throughout "Ghostlight" play into the expectations of a sentimental, feel-good dramedy designed to make viewers laugh and cry. Once the first act finishes setting the table, it's easy to guess that the play will help Dan, Sharon, and Daisy reconnect, and the manner in which O'Sullivan's screenplay contrives direct parallels between the family's own tragedy and the play's is so bold it's almost admirable. The unabashed emotional manipulation might make more cynical viewers want nothing to do with "Ghostlight," while others might be happy to play along.

That's where O'Sullivan and Thompson get clever with self-awareness, since the film deals primarily with the process of making art. Unlike, say, the cynical and schematic ways a crowd pleaser like Best Picture winner "CODA" go through emotional beats like going down a checklist, none of "Ghostlight" ever reads as disingenuous. Like the family at its center, as well as the ragtag theater troupe they befriend, the film has a small group come together to put on a show, with the hope that their creation will fulfill viewers in a way that it fulfilled them to make it. "Ghostlight" knows it's far from perfect because it sees value in imperfection.

As difficult as it was for me to avoid cringing at some of the film's cornier moments, "Ghostlight" eventually wore me down. It helps that, once Dan reveals his secret to his wife and daughter, the film opens itself up in surprising ways. Earlier scenes of Daisy screaming and cursing initially make Mallen Kupferer look like she's playing her role too broad, but once she joins the play and enters a more comfortable environment, her abrasiveness gives way to a naturalism that puts her earlier scenes of acting out in a different context.

For all the times "Ghostlight" violently yanks at viewers' heartstrings, its big, climactic moment pays off by taking an unexpectedly restrained approach. And as messy of a journey "Ghostlight" was to get to that moment, it does earn some credit for pulling it off.

by C.J. Prince

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