A masterfully crafted work with nearly no false notes, Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight is a tender drama bearing profound moments of humor and small triumphs. The smartly constructed script by O’Sullivan buries the lede, revealing new narrative information with each layer as we watch a nuclear family slowly come apart and, later, find solace in the wake of their son’s suicide. Anchored by a real-life family, the film feels as if it’s been meticulously workshopped with the same intimate collaboration that gave O’Sullivan and Thompson’s last feature, Saint Frances, its authentic nuances.

Dan Muller (Keith Kupferer) is first presented to us as a small-town construction worker with a short temper and family drama. He has a rebellious 15-year-old daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) and his marriage to Sharon (Tara Mallen) is on the rocks. Love holds the family together, and following an early outburst in which Daisy is accused of assaulting a teacher, Dan and a sympathetic principal try coming to an arrangement that involves counseling. 

The problem for Dan: he hasn’t had time to process his son’s death, balancing his need to be a provider, the struggles with Daisy’s mental health, and an upcoming legal deposition. All of this causes him to snap at work. As an old-school, blue-collar man from the midwest, he accepts responsibility for everything while Sharon quietly tries upholding the family with tough love.

While Ghostlight shares DNA with other indie films about the grieving process, it also exudes warm humor and subtle mysteries about each character, proceeding in a way that allows the story to naturally unfold. In 2011, SXSW screened UK artist Gillian Wearing’s Self Made, wherein “subjects” worked with a screenwriter and acting coach to make shorts confronting the most terrifying moments of their lives. In Ghostlight, Dan agrees to do something similar, starring as Romeo in a local theater troupe’s production of Romeo and Juliet without knowing its plot. In a funny scene, Daisy shows him the “old movie” (i.e. Baz Luhrmann’s) on her computer.

Behind his family’s back, Dan works with Rita (Dolly De Leon) and a theater troupe on the production, learning the process of healing through art and eventually bringing Daisy into the mix once she finds out and interprets an intimacy exercise as cheating. She quickly takes a liking to Rita who, many years ago, lived the life Daisy hoped to have: moving to New York after graduation and working in the arts. It’s a life that’s still possible and a sequel I would welcome.

There are so many ways this material could turn clichéd, but O’Sullivan’s script, along with a wonderfully restrained lead performance by Kupferer, steers the film from such landmines. Tonally it’s similar to the work of Angus MacLachlan, another playwright who has successfully transitioned to making films about families at various crossroads. While the show that ends the film might overstay its welcome a bit, Ghostlight is a profound work about a tough family made tougher by unimaginable grief. 

Ghostlight screened at SXSW 2024 and will be released by IFC Films.

Grade: A-

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