Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

In theaters on June 14th, ‘Ghostlight’ sees the welcome, if limited cinematic release for Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s wonderful story of grief, struggle and belonging that lit up this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In a year when bigger movies are struggling to make an impact, a smaller film such as this has a chance to reach the audience it truly deserves –– which is as many people as possible.

Related Article: MIH: 'Ghostlight' Exclusive Interviews

Is ‘Ghostlight’ illuminating?

Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

(L to R) Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

Let’s get any questions about the title out of the way first: while you might be expecting supernatural goings-on here, there is nothing spooky about ‘Ghostlight’. The title refers to a stage tradition where a single light is kept shining on or around the performance space whenever it is dark.

Rumor has it that the light is intended to chase away mischievous spirits; while others are convinced it lights the way for the ghosts that are said to inhabit virtually every theatre, keeping them happy and contented.

There are no ghosts to be found in ‘Ghostlight’ the movie, but the main character is most certainly haunted, burdened by the grief he feels after an unimaginable loss within the family (something that the filmmakers cannily keep as a mystery until later in the movie, even if it potentially frustrates some viewers; we won’t spoil that here).

Script and Direction

Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

Chicago-based filmmakers O’Sullivan and Thompson have a history working together (and a personal relationship) that gives their film a richness and an authenticity. The pair, previously best known for 2019’s drama ‘Saint Frances’, here unpack the deep well of sadness and the impact it has on the central family.

Yet rather than simply wallow in grief and pressure, they find something wonderful in the way even the most amateurish theatre production can help people come out of themselves –– by being someone else. The ‘Ghostlight’ script, while it isn’t perfect, does at least feel as naturalistic as the performances it inspires, and though you could find yourself wondering at some of the more expected turns (such as the mistaken suspicion that the lead is cheating on his wife), it manages to ride over any issues with its heartfelt conjuring of the world.

As you might expect given that the directors are also the writers, the film is brought to life intimately and with care, with few false notes when it comes to staging and acting. It’s clear that the filmmakers have a real love for the people and players they are bringing to the screen, and it’s hard not for that to be infectious even as it is by turns heartbreaking and funny. Plus, you have to respect a director in Sullivan who stayed on the job while A) pregnant and B) down with a mild case of Covid, directing scenes using a monitor and walkie talkie outside one of the locations.

Performances

Dolly de Leon in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

(L to R) Dolly de Leon in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

This is a movie anchored by four strong central performances, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that, like their directors, three of them are connected beyond the screen.

Keith Kupferer as Dan

Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

Keith Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

Dan is our way into the story, a stoic construction worker who has withdrawn even further from the world because of a tragic loss to his family. He’s dealing with his own feelings, his wife’s sense of loss and his daughter acting out. He doesn’t expect to find what he’s looking for in a local theater company, but he gets more than he bargained for when he initially agrees to read a few lines.

Keith Kupferer, a stalwart on the Chicago stage performance scene who has also been seen in movies such as ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Fred Claus’, usually in small and uncredited roles, here has the chance to shine. And what he does with the part is a wonder –– totally believable and watchable. You’ll find yourself rooting for Dan to succeed and really find what he’s been looking for.

Katherine Mallen Kupferer as Daisy

Katherine Mallen Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

Katherine Mallen Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

One of the other standout performances is Kupferer’s real-life daughter playing his onscreen child. The Katherine Mallen Kupferer is herself a revelation, spiky and bratty in places, but showing the struggle she’s going through in a fresh, amusing and ultimately moving way. Daisy is reacting to grief and tension with entirely understandable frustration and anger, but Kupferer side-steps cliches to bring something human to the table.

Tara Mallen as Sharon

Katherine Mallen Kupferer and Tara Mallen in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

(L to R) Katherine Mallen Kupferer and Tara Mallen in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Tara Mallen, real-life wife to Keith and mother to Katherine, is the spine of steel through the movie, a woman who knows that she can’t simply implode in the face of incredible trauma, as she perceives her husband to be doing. While her role is smaller, Mallen always inhabits it with depth and grace.

Dolly De Leon as Rita

Dolly de Leon in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

Dolly de Leon in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

Dolly De Leon, best known right now for ‘Triangle of Sadness’, is a fireball as Rita, first scene complaining about the noise from Dan and his colleagues’ work outside her theater group’s shabby locale and then dragging him into it to help with their production of ‘Romeo & Juliet’. She’s a great character, played by the actress with precision and spirit.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also offer praise to the other members of the theatre company, who all bring something funny and emotional to the table. This is a superb ensemble.

Final Thoughts

Keith Kupferer and Katherine Mallen Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

(L to R) Keith Kupferer and Katherine Mallen Kupferer in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Though a movie about the healing properties of performance could seem overwrought and self-satisfied, ‘Ghostlight’ skirts those issues by treating the grief aspect with the weight it deserves and making the transformative aspects feel earned.

Hopefully the movie won’t just vanish into the pack and might find itself with some more award nominations down the line. It’s certainly one to see, unless you’re uncomfortable with strangers seeing you blubbing in a movie theater.

‘Ghostlight’ receives 8.5 out of 10 stars.

Ghostlight

R1 hr 55 minJun 20th, 2024
Showtimes & Tickets

When a construction worker unexpectedly joins a local theater's production of Romeo and Juliet alongside his estranged teenage daughter, the drama onstage starts... Read the Plot

What’s the story of ‘Ghostlight’?

Devastated by a loss, middle-aged father Dan (Keith Kupferer) struggles to control his anger at work at a road construction site and grows distant from his grief-stricken family.

When the outspoken Rita (Dolly De Leon) bullies him into joining a floundering community theater production of Romeo and Juliet, Dan slowly begins to reopen to life’s possibilities.

Who stars in ‘Ghostlight’?

Alongside Kupferer and De Leon, the cast includes Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Tara Mallen, Hanna Dworkin, Dexter Zollicoffer, Matthew C. Yee and Tommy Rivera-Vega.

Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'.

(L to R) Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s 'Ghostlight'. Courtesy of Luke Dyra. An IFC Films release.

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