Writer/director Claudia Myers’s Above the Shadows blends several genres — fantasy, romance, sports — for an original take on grief, particularly childhood grief. It’s such a complex topic that it’s commendable that the filmmaker approaches it from a fresh, imaginative angle.
Young Holly is so stricken by the loss of her mother (Maria Dizzia) from cancer that she disappears — not runs away, but evaporates. Worse, even her family — dad (Jim Gaffigan), older sister (Megan Fox) and younger brother (Owen Campbell) — have lost all memory of her existence. This seems more a plot convenience than anything else, but credibility isn’t the point. Above the Shadows isn’t a ghost story — and kudos to Myers for having the creative nerve to ground it in emotional reality.
The first third of the film depicts the older Holly (Olivia Thirlby) managing to exist in a world where, for all intents and purposes, she doesn’t exist. In a age when people can live out huge chunks of their lives virtually, whether at work or dating or crafting personas on social media, this is all quite believable and dramatic. Holly makes a living snapping “gotcha” photos of celebrities, since she can take them up close and personal, and selling them to tabloids. Things drift further into the fantastical when she meets nightclub bouncer and MMA fighter Shayne (Alan Ritchson) who, it just so happens, can see Holly. Seems one of Holly’s stealth photos of Shayne cheating on his wife ruined his life and career (one wonders, in the age of boasts about pussy-grabbing, really? Wouldn’t MMA fans cheer?).
Holly, seen for the first time in years, wants to stay close to Shayne. So she decides to rebuild his fighting career. The film takes an interesting turn into The Wrestler territory with scenes of Shayne regaining his identity by beating his opponents — all without knowing that Holly has exerted her influence on the outcome of his bouts. We know where things are headed, of course — and the romantic montage suffers from cliché — but there is pleasure in watching the film navigate such an unusual romance and its expected pitfalls within the premise of Holly’s invisibility. Sure, there are plenty of contrivances and an ending that is a bit of a head-scratcher but Myers manages the rare feat of examining profound grief and monumental loss in novel, touching way.