MOVIE OF THE WEEK June 14, 2024: GHOSTLIGHT

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The crushing weight of grief and the healing power of theater are explored with touching authenticity in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s poignant dramedy Ghostlight. As it gradually reveals the heartbreaking loss at the center of its main characters’ lives, the film shows how the impact of that loss has left them all reeling, unable to move forward until one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays helps them find a way to process it together.

Real-life couple — and Chicago theater veterans — Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen star as long-married duo Dan and Sharon, who live in the Chicago suburbs with their rebellious teen daughter, Daisy (played by the couple’s actual daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer). Sharon is a high school theater teacher, and Daisy is a seasoned performer, but Dan, a construction worker, is more about watching shows than participating in them. That changes when feisty Rita (Dolly De Leon) witnesses Dan having an angry outburst on the job and enlists him in her community theater group’s production of Romeo and Juliet so that he can have a more positive outlet for his feelings.

Exactly why Dan is so angry — and why Daisy is so defiant and why Romeo and Juliet is a particularly painful story for Dan to be involved with — becomes clear over the course of the film. O’Sullivan’s script does an excellent job of letting the family’s heartbreaking story unfold naturally; there’s no stiff exposition here, only realistic, relatable people stumbling over truths and emotions that are overwhelming and difficult to talk about. Which isn’t to say that Ghostlight is a downer in any way; indeed, it has powerful moments of humor, joy, and connection, and it was clearly made by people who love the magic of creating something meaningful on stage.

Ghostlight marks O’Sullivan’s feature directorial debut, and she and Thompson demonstrate a clear knack for capturing scenes that are almost documentary-like in their genuineness and intimacy. The characters talk like real people, and they make mistakes like real people. That makes it all the more affecting when they demonstrate growth and positive change. And the fact that Dan, Sharon, and Daisy are played by a real family gives their performances and interactions that much more emotional weight. The end result is a delicate, heartfelt film that’s likely to leave you smiling through tears.– Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: A distinguished Chicago theater family and The Triangle of Sadness’ Dolly De Leon unite in this cinematic tour de force in which grief finds an outlet in the mounting of a play. Construction worker Dan (Keith Kupferer) copes with the loss of a family member by not really coping at all. He’s barely hanging on at his job, is increasingly remote from his wife Sharon (played by Kupferer’s real-life partner Tara Mallen), and at odds with his troubled teen daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer, who is the real life daughter of Keith and Tara). What remains of his energy is reserved for a long-odds wrongful death lawsuit that will never make him whole again even if it succeeds. Read full review.

Loren King This tender drama about a family grappling with grief is a paean to the transformative power of theater. If that sounds lofty, Ghostlight is anything but. It’s grounded in believable, well defined characters led by Keith Kupferer as Dan Mueller, a father fumbling through life in the wake of a tragedy but who begins to comes alive when he stumbles upon a community theater troupe and gets cast in their production of Romeo and Juliet. Read full review.

Sherin Nicole If art is a healer, then theater is therapeutic. In daily life, there are countless instances of empowerment through immersing ourselves, not only in the craft but, in characters who allow us to emote freely. Ghostlight reflects that reality. Dan (Keith Kupferer) and Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), a father and daughter (on screen and in life), are grieving a loss. Each acts out in their own ways until Shakespeare’s classic tale of woe sparks something within them. Seeking an outlet to fill the void left by his sorrow, Dan joins a small theater troupe in a production of Romeo and Juliet. This unexpected act gives him space to heal and to allow his family to do the same. Kupferer (elder) delivers a moving portrayal of a maN with a lit fuse seeking belonging. While Kupferer (junior) is a volatile burst of repression that transmutes. Despite heavy themes, Ghostlight is funny in the way life tends to be—misunderstandings, sudden slaps or punches, grappling with Shakespearean dialog in iambic pentameter. Those truths of life—found in the balance of humor and pain—culminate in a forthright ballad of grief and recovery.

Leslie Combemale The fact that art is freeing and healing to a wounded soul isn’t new. But this film, which touches something specific in my own life, really drives that truth home. Speaking as a sister of a dead child who died as a teenager, I can say that death can be like a bomb going off in the middle of a family. Ghostlight captures that, but also captures how community and the love of family can see you through and start to heal what seemed a terminal wound. It’s a sweet and tender little film, and beautifully performed.

Jennifer Merin Ghostlight is a family affair created by Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, who are partners in filmmaking and in life, and it stars Keith Kupferer, his wife Tara Mallen and their daughter Katherine Mallen Kupferer. Familiarity is guaranteed. Ghostlight is about a family in crisis, and the close knit cast brings a stunning sense of intimacy to the characters and an aura of authenticity to the story. The characters are engaging from beginning to end, and their complex issues are revealed slowly and sensitively. The performances — from the starring family and ensemble, especially the brilliant and unstoppable Dolly Leon — are nuanced and seductive. The movie’s plot actually involves an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet, which has some story elements that parallel Ghostlight‘s overall story and theme. As a work of art, Ghostlight validates our notion that storytelling and role playing are essential elements in overcoming grief and resolving anger. The film’s approach to this theme is so distinctively fresh that it deserves fresh eyes. The film’s sbtle humor heightens its poignancy. It’s a must see. You will want to weave this film into the fabric of your life!

Sandie Angulo Chen: Ghostlight is a profound and memorable drama about grief and the transformative power of art and storytelling. Written and co-directed by filmmaking couple Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, the film follows Dan (Keith Kupferer), a grieving, middle-aged construction worker who ends up playing Romeo in an unconventionally cast community theater production of Romeo and Juliet. At home, Dan’s wife Sharon (Tara Mallen, Kupferer’s real life wife) and their daughter Daisy (played by their actual kid, Katherine Mallen Kupferer) struggle with the aftermath of a family tragedy and misinterpret Dan’s prolonged absences. The film boasts an amazing supporting performance from Filipina actress Dolly de Leon as Rita, the community theater production’s 50-something Juliet. This is a hopeful, if at times heartbreaking, movie that will make local-theater champions of us all.

Nikki Fowler: Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight is more than just a film centered on grief and tragedy but one that ripples with fear, anger, rage and one’s ability to cope and survive. Keith Kupferer stars as Dan, a construction worker father with anger management issues who has lost his son in a very haunting way and who is met by Dolly De Leon’s character when she sees him raging in anger at an obnoxious speeding driver while he’s at work. Unbeknownst to his wife Sarah (Tara Mallen) and daughter Daisy (and Katherine Mallen Kupferer) Dan is invited to join a community theater rendition of Romeo and Juliet. The play, which has a shocking connection to his late son, takes Dan out of his comfort zone. Ghostlight is sincere and raw and comforting while watching something that’s discomforting. The film’s performances will envelop you in all of the character’s soft yet jagged personas.

Liz Whittemore In Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight, Dan gears up for the court case connected to the death of their son. His suppressed emotions reach a boiling point, affecting the entire family. Dan accidentally finds himself in a local and flailing community theater production of Romeo & Juliet. It is a surprising form of therapy amidst the chaos of his real life. Performance is an act of catharsis. Embodying another person is often a vehicle to work through hidden unresolved trauma and heal through the words of a character. The cast of Ghostlight pours their hearts into these roles, so much so that one might think the film was a documentary rather than a drama. A skillfully built story of loss and reclaiming our spirit, Ghostlight is a deep dive into grief and reconnection.

Cate Marquis Ghostlight starts seeming as if it might be simple family drama, but slowly reveals itself, layer upon layer, to be something much more. Starting with an ordinary man, a middle-aged street maintenance man, who by pure chance is drawn into a community theater production by this little storefront teater group of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The man has no real interest in theater, but he has a daughter who loves theater, and that daughter is struggling, and the play provides a connection Brilliantly constructed in a quiet, almost surreptitious way, with subtle, naturalistic acting and a fine script, Ghostlight goes on to explore human emotion, the bonds of family, friendship, loss, the magic of theater, the nature of acting, and the enduring power of Shakespeare. This drama about theater and family has a lot of real family connections, with filmmakers Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, partners both professionally and personally, and actor Keith Kupferer, wife Tara Mallen and their daughter Katherine Mallen Kupferer all playing the family in this tale. Blending in elements that include Broadway dreams, acting and theater with human connections, family, heartbreak and healing, Ghostlight is one impressive package.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Ghostlight

Directors: Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson

Release Date: June 14, 2024

Running Time: 80 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriters\: Kelly O’Sullivan

Distribution Company: IFC Films

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).