Credit: IFC Films
by Emily DuGranrut Featured Film Horizon Line

Ghostlight — Kelly O’Sullivan & Alex Thompson

June 21, 2024

Two households, both alike in silent grief,
In fair Midwest town, where we lay our scene,
From ancient sorrow break to new relief,
Where art and loss entwine in tender sheen.
From forth the depths of one man’s troubled soul,
A family strained by grief and silent pain,
In theater’s light, they find a healing role,
Through Shakespeare’s words, their wounds are shown again.

Art has long served as a conduit for healing, offering solace and a means to process complex emotion. Theater, in particular, provides a therapeutic escape for many, allowing people to inhabit different circumstances and perspectives. Specifically, it goes without saying — regardless of your personal Bard canon — that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet stands as a timeless cultural and artistic testament to the power of storytelling and its ability to transport performers and audiences alike into other realities. The play’s adaptations have transcended centuries, societies, and mediums, each reimagining bringing new life to the classic tale. From the operatic heights of Gounoud and Bellini to the (soap-)operatic brilliance of Baz Luhrmann, each version underlines and bolds the play’s universal themes of love, conflict, grief, and cruel fate, crystallizing its legacy as a cornerstone of both artistic expression and catharsis.

The latest film to take inspiration from the classic play, Ghostlight, is concerned less in representing the material itself than in documenting a collective entry into its emotional core. It centers on Dan (Keith Kupferer), a road crew worker whose short temper and unresolved grief dominate his life. His wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), struggles to hold her family together in the wake of the tragic loss of their son. Meanwhile, their daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), rebels against her parents as a way to process her own pain. At work, Dan encounters Rita (Dolly De Leon), who is complaining that the noise his crew is causing is interrupting her rehearsal. Eventually, she invites Dan to the shabby theater where her ragtag troupe is rehearsing Romeo and Juliet. The firmly blue-collar Dan, initially baffled by Shakespeare’s language and the world of theater, then continues to show up, for reasons he can’t quite articulate, but it’s clear the theater becomes a sanctuary for him, the community a lifeline. When Sharon and Daisy become involved in the play, its production transforms into a collective healing process for the whole family.

So yes, Ghostlight’s basic synopsis reads like a spot-on recipe for schmaltz. Thankfully, as directed by Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, the film is far more subtle in execution than it has any right to be based on that logline. Much of its mustered power can be attributed to the casting of a real-life family as its core trio, which lends not just authenticity to their dynamic, but the layers of complicated, literally lived-in familiarity that would be otherwise nigh impossible to establish. The subsequent portrayal of one family’s fractious grief, which can so easily be handled either manipulatively or cloyingly, here feels profoundly genuine and earned.

In weaker moments, certain scenes can feel admittedly a bit contrived, such as Dan’s convenient cluelessness regarding anything Romeo and Juliet, or Daisy’s hyper-explanatory dialogue. The script simply isn’t as tight as it could be, which results in an instinct toward aggressive exposition in instances and a bit of whiplash when the otherwise delicate treatment falls into the footsteps of overly familiar narrative beats. Still, Ghostlight largely mitigates these issues on the strength and sincerity of its performances. It’s a work that takes care to patiently, deliberately parcel out its narrative piece by piece, engaging on a scene-by-scene basis by realizing this family’s fragments as a slowly reassembling puzzle. In the end, Ghostlight can be understood as the after, the inevitable balance to Romeo and Juliet’s final tragedy. There, two families, in the immediate aftermath of fissure, gesture toward each other in their grief. Here, one family returns to itself, at last sees clearly the path forward, and begins the aching, healing walk toward tomorrow, and the tomorrow after.

A brighter peace this movie with it brings;
The healing light of art in sorrow’s stead:
Go hence, reflect on these uplifting things;
Some hearts restored, and some bonds newly spread:
For never was a story filled with such light
As this of Dan and his family’s fight.

DIRECTOR: Kelly O’Sullivan & Alex Thompson;  CAST: Keith Kupferer, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Dolly de Leon, Tara Mallen;  DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films;  IN THEATERS: June 14;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 55 min.