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Directed by Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson.
Starring Keith Kupferer, Dolly de Leon, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Tara Mallen, Hanna Dworkin, Dexter Zollicoffer, HB Ward, Tommy Rivera-Vega, Alma Washington, Matthew C. Yee, Marlene Slaughter, Bradley Grant Smith, Lia Cubilete, Cindy Gold, Charlie Lubeck, Francis Guinan, Sarab Kamoo, Charin Alvarez, Anthony Lee Irons, Deanna Dunagan, Jaci Williamson, and Santino Craven.


When a construction worker unexpectedly comes across a performance of Romeo and Juliet at a local theater, the drama on stage reflects his own life.

With each little revelation (each one feels like a piece of a puzzle) it feels as if filmmakers Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson are like Icarus, taking the narrative from Ghostlight too close to the sun, what it does to its Romeo and Juliet Meta spin. The magic trick that works here is that it never feels like too much or like it’s laid on too thick, and that’s mainly because the emotions in this Shakespearean melodrama feel authentic. With each new detail we learn about the family at the center of the film, how the tragic loss of their son/brother affected them, and the circumstances under which he died, everything hurts more.

Dan (Keith Kupferer, vulnerable and explosive in equal parts, with a great, pain-filled performance that probably would have made a splash at awards shows if he were a bigger star, the film was released by a bigger distributor and theatrical release was closer to this season) is the Illinois construction worker trying to hold together the family, which consists of his wife Sharon (Tara Mallen) and rebellious, foul-mouthed problem child Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), both played by his real-life wife and daughter.

He has not given him or the family time and space to grieve properly, and is preparing to file a lawsuit against the son’s girlfriend’s family, implying that she was partially responsible for his death. More importantly, Dan is internally angry and has a short fuse. He is as quick to lash out like an annoying driver annoyed at his construction work as he is to verbally lash out at his wife and daughter, which they seem to believe is a defense mechanism against reality.

Dolly De Leon’s Rita notices Dan’s breakdown at work and decides to casually invite him to the local theater group she’s in, which is preparing its faithful but middle-aged version of Romeo and Juliet (the film does a great job of showing the nature of storytelling and the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes). Although his daughter has done a few school plays, Dan is a bit lost, not knowing how to use his voice, not quite understanding what it means to play a character who speaks and behaves differently from yourself, or how a stage performance can provide catharsis. Nevertheless, he finds himself reciting his lines in the car on the way home, chatting to Daisy about Romeo and Juliet without telling her what he was getting himself into.

In what could have been an embarrassing, manipulative, tasteless gimmick, aspects of Romeo and Juliet play on what this family has recently been through. It also causes Dan to withdraw or blow up whenever these parallels become more apparent during rehearsals. When Dan finds out at the end that Romeo and Juliet die (one of many odd contrivances that don’t drag the story down too much, considering how compelling and real it all feels despite everything), his natural reaction is to freak out and demand that the ending be changed, thereby condemning Shakespeare.

Eventually, the whole family gets involved, and this combative staging and its emotional resonance can potentially save the family from collapse. Dan has frequently quarreled with Sharon, who hasn’t had a chance to mourn her son. Daisy struggles with authority and is nearly thrown off the stage (quite conveniently when she enters the play and begins rehearsals), having previously lost her passion for the arts as well. Katherine Mallen Kupferer also gets the chance to deliver a sometimes loud and brash performance, giving her troublemaking antics the character of a sitcom character and can sometimes feel at odds with the more serious narrative, but still delivers a compelling performance.

Of course, there is strong, believable chemistry between all the family members. The dynamic between Dan and Rita is equally tender, as the latter imparts wisdom about the power of the arts while also talking about her life and what it means to her to be able to play Juliet, even if the logic of young love doesn’t align with two older actors in the title roles.

Ghostlight uses this artistic exercise to gradually build catharsis and acceptance; it is powerful in concept and execution with great, lively performances. Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson cleverly create something Shakespearean off-screen Romeo and Juliet The performance is pitched just right so that the material is perceived as emotionally damaging rather than an eye-rolling melodramatic disaster. It’s a daring and audacious balancing act that doesn’t seem to work until each poignant moment arrives as intended.

Assessment of the flickering myth – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Cinema: ★ ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the reviews editor at Flickering Myth. Find new reviews here, follow me Þjórsárden or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]

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