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Release Date: 06/14/24 [Cinemas]
Genre: Comedy. Drama.

Studio: IFC Films.

"When a construction worker unexpectedly joins a local theater's production of Romeo and Juliet, the drama onstage starts to mirror his own life." 


In theater, the light left on when everyone has cleared out of a venue is called a “ghost light.” In a metaphorical sense, it’s the fire left burning until the cast and crew return to stoke the flames with their own creativity. If you want to go a little deeper, you could say it represents the hope that someone will return to continue to make art that will inspire the world. Now, in the new film titled Ghostlight the term takes on a slightly different meaning. Rather than the light being inside the theater, the concept of theater ends up being the one thing that prevents the protagonist from being consumed by their own darkness altogether.


Directed by Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan, the film follows Dan, a middle-aged construction worker who, at a glance, appears to be going through a midlife crisis. He can’t focus at work. He and his wife, Sharon, have issues being intimate. And he can’t quite seem to figure out what to do with his daughter, Daisy, who is on the verge of getting kicked out of school for constantly acting out. With so much pent up stress and anger, one day he lashes out and nearly beats up a stranger. Embarrassed by his actions, he wants to retreat home, but before he can drive away he receives an invitation from another stranger to read lines with her in preparation for a play at a local theater. While he initially declines, he reluctantly accepts. What starts off as a one-time favor transforms into a much-needed outlet for his emotions.


Although the story would be rich enough if it were just about a man who fights his demons through the emotional intelligence he develops doing theater, the story only starts there. It becomes infinitely more compelling when his rebellious daughter accidentally discovers what he’s doing and joins him. Not only does it become a way for them to bond, but it allows both of them to see how similar each of their struggles are.


It helps that both Dan and Daisy are played by real-life father and daughter Keith Kupferer and Katherine Mallen Kupferer. The family ties don’t end there though, as Sharon is also played by the family’s matriarch Tara Mallen. While it’s hard to say whether the chemistry between all three sells the film, the family’s quiet closeness creates an air of authenticity that is hard to come by in most modern dramas. And it shines during some of the film’s most humanizing moments. Some of the film’s best moments are moments where nothing is said at all. For a film about how acting can help you tap into your emotions, it’s only fitting that Thompson and O’Sullivan give their actors so much room to show us how their characters feel.

Thirty minutes into the film, there’s a major revelation made about the family that recontextualizes all of their previous attitudes and interactions. In the scene where this particular revelation is made, each character responds differently.  Without giving too much away, it’s in this scene that you know exactly how much everyone is hurting.


The Mallen Kupferer clan isn’t alone in its acting ability. Dolly De Leon, who most may remember from Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness also soars here. She plays Rita, the woman who introduces Dan to the local theater and coerces him into joining. While we don’t ever get to know too much about her character - we only ever get a small window into her personal life from interactions with Dan and Daisy - she delivers quite the memorable performance. Not one moment of screen time is wasted by De Leon. The only thing that rivals her performance is what she represents to Dan. As a middle-aged woman herself, she’s proof that just because we mourn something doesn’t mean it has to be gone forever. In her case, it’s her dream of being an actress. In Dan’s case, it’s the loss of someone close to him.


The greatest piece of symbolism in the film, however, comes from the play Dan finds himself the star of: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Surprisingly, he hasn’t heard of it. While he thinks it’s just a silly romance, when he uncovers the truth about its tragic ending, it triggers him. Sadly, the story of star-crossed lovers parallels an experience that he’s still grappling with. In another of the film’s memorable scenes, when he learns what happens to the titular duo, he has an outburst among the play’s other cast members. Unlike everyone else in his life, however, they are not turned off or quick to engage in his anger. Instead, they indulge in his emotions. For the first time in a long time, Dan experiences catharsis. And only then does he truly understand the power - and pleasure - of performance art.


That may very well be the best thing about the film. Thompson and O’Sullivan don’t ever paint theater as a spectacle. In fact, the theater troupe Dan falls into is the furthest thing from Broadway. Yet the reverence for the art form and its impact on all those it touches is the same. It’s hard work. It’s entertaining. But when you take away the costumes and the sets, it’s also group therapy in its most grandiose form.


The only area where the film falls short is with its supporting cast. Aside from Rita, the members of the theater troupe appear to be intriguing misfits. Unfortunately, we don’t ever learn too much about them to form a solid opinion. Additionally, it feels as if Daisy's arc fades halfway through the film, simply being resolved by the fact that she is bonding with her father. But that’s all forgivable because this is really Dan’s story, after all.


If there’s one thing worth taking away from Ghostlight, it’s that life does imitate art. But it actually imitates theater best. People enter. People exit. People laugh. People cry. People clap. Occasionally you’ll forget what you’ll have to say or where you’re supposed to be, but whether you’re ready or not, the show goes on. And if you ever get lost in the dark, there’s a little light somewhere in the room waiting to guide you.


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