Sundance 2024 Film Review: Ghostlight

A performance in celebration of performance itself, Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight explores the power of theater as a tool for therapy, connection and self-discovery. 

Ghostlight centers on Dan (Keith Kupferer), a melancholic middle-aged construction worker grieving a family tragedy. Cut off from his devoted wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), and talented but troubled daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), Dan finds comfort and community in a misfit company of amateur actors. While moonlighting in a low-rent production of Shakespeare’s most protean tragedy, Dan is forced to confront his buried emotions.”—

Ghostlight was one of the more tangibly emotional films I saw over the course of the festival, in a way that went beyond the notably brilliant work of the cast. The score (or lack thereof, sometimes), the camera work and the dialogue all perfectly captured the uncomfortable emotions bursting from lead Dan (played by Kupferer). Now, that’s not to say the cast performance didn’t make a definite impact: Dan’s bumbling, Daisy’s full-volume outbursts and even Rita’s (Dolly De Leon) soft-spoken intensity all contribute to the power of every scene, both on-screen and on stage. 

On the subject of the soundtrack, I was struck by the interspersed use of infamous musical theater tracks, from “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” to “Out of My Dreams” as the backing to more or less mundane everyday life activities. These track choices showcased how storytelling and showmanship can deeply influence and infiltrate life’s simplest moments, bringing every viewer, like Dan, bumbling into a love of the theater. 

One of the most engaging elements of the film was the expertly executed, slow-burn mystery of the tragedy that has befallen the story’s central family. It begins the introduction with insights into the clearly troubled life of Daisy, the family’s teen daughter. There are allusions to a cryptic lawsuit involving the family’s absent son and an apparent former partner, but the audience is not given the immediate, satisfying explanation many might expect. Rather, it is not until one of those impressively emotional moments that Dan is able to reveal a tragedy that very closely mirrors that of Romeo and Juliet, the play Dan finds himself part of after pulled into rehearsals by newfound friend Rita. 
With all combined elements working together in full force, Ghostlight becomes a heartfelt, vulnerable story of self-discovery and family connection, playing out in the most unexpected of places: in front of an audience on stage in the most unlikely of Shakespearean performances. If you’re looking for a feel-good film in a modern retelling of a classic, look no further.

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