You may know indie filmmakers Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson from their quirky, funny-yet-poignant 2019 feature Saint Frances. Now the partners-in-storytelling return with Ghostlight, another dramatic-comedy gem centered around life’s complex emotions.
This time, the duo spotlights a working class father named Dan struggling through grief after his son’s death. Dan is your quintessential Chicago construction guy – gruff, bottled-up, bears-and-beer – brought to authentic life by Keith Kupferer’s lived-in performance. But when Dan stumbles into an opportunity with a ragtag community theater troupe, their production of Romeo and Juliet starts unlocking feelings he buried long ago.
As Dan bonds with the lovable misfits, memorizes those famous lines of Shakespearean tragedy, and sees his own family reflected in the play’s anguished arcs, we witness the quietly transformative power of art. Ghostlight promises all the offbeat humor and heart-wrenching humanity that made Saint Frances such a Sundance darling. And with Dan’s turmoil echoing some of literature’s most iconic lost souls, this funny, sad, ultimately uplifting film may resonate beyond the indie bubble into the mainstream.
A Family Anchors the Story
At Ghostlight’s emotional core is the Mueller family, brought to life by real-life relatives Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen and Katherine Mallen Kupferer. It’s a clever bit of casting that pays off, lending an extra layer of authenticity to the fictional family’s bonds and dynamics.
As construction worker Dan Mueller, Keith Kupferers oozes the surliness and bottled anger you’d expect from a Chicago working-class bear. But in his heavy eyes, we glimpse wellsprings of grief that connect Dan to timeless tragic figures. We ache as he struggles to console his spirited teenage daughter Daisy, played with hormonal fire by an impressive Katherine Mallen Kupferer. And as Dan’s wife Sharon, Tara Mallen tethers the family with warmth and weariness as she watches it unravel.
The Muellers cross paths with Rita, the fast-talking director of a cash-strapped theater troupe trying valiantly to stage Romeo and Juliet. Played hilariously by Dolly De Leon, Rita spots something in Dan when she recruits him as an actor, maybe a chance at redemption through art. And her ensemble of aspiring thespians blanket Dan in the embrace of a makeshift family.
Watching the Muellers reconcile their heartache through this lovably odd community – and through Shakespeare’s poetic tragedy – makes for a one-of-a-kind film experience. Credit O’Sullivan’s writing and directing with Thompson for orchestrating it with humor and humanity to spare.
Grief and Growth Through Art
At its heart, Ghostlight explores profound themes of grief, loss and the struggle to heal. Yet it tackles the weighty subject matter with warmth and wit thanks to its intrinsically human characters.
We meet Dan Mueller stuck in more ways than one – emotionally paralyzed by his son’s death while jackhammering concrete day after day. The blue-collar setting rings true for working-class Chicago, down to details like Dan’s Bears cap and neighborhood corner tap. He’s a walking cliché of masculinity unable to process pain, and Keith Kupferer gives him soul with every silent, brooding glance.
When Dan lands a role alongside Dolly De Leon’s wonderfully wacky Rita, at first he’s a fish out of water among her troupe of quirky thespians. But as they rehearse Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, the parallels between the play and Dan’s own loss become increasingly apparent. Through young Romeo’s reckless grief and the rhyming couple’s shared sorrow, Dan finds reflection, resonance and finally release after barricading his true feelings so long.
O’Sullivan’s script finds judicious moments of levity amid the heartache, especially in the lovable acting ensemble’s hijinks. Yet make no mistake, Ghostlight earns its tears through strong writing, direction and performances honoring the many faces of grief. Ultimately Dan’s journey proves the stage has power to heal. And seeing this gruff workingman reborn through art and community offers hope for us all.
A Confident Directorial Debut
Co-writing and making her directing debut alongside partner Alex Thompson, Kelly O’Sullivan brings her perceptive voice to Ghostlight with maturity. Together they demonstrate a light but insightful touch, using a modest visual approach that puts performances first.
We feel we’re watching real people, not characters, thanks to little moments like Dan gulping post-work beers or Rita’s theatrical warm-up poses. O’Sullivan and Thompson let scenes linger on faces, drawing us into the actors’ emotional worlds with economical close-ups. These authentic glimpses make the Mueller family’s secrets all the more devastating when finally revealed.
The filmmakers understand pacing, steadily building the narrative while saving key details for maximum impact. We learn early on that Dan harbors volcanic anger, but only later discover its tragic roots. And they juggle earnest, funny beats without tonal awkwardness – no easy feat with grief as the backdrop.
As first-time directors, O’Sullivan and Thompson honor the story without overstylizing. They trust talented performers like Keith Kupferer to mine endless nuance from their human script. The result is a film that feels lovingly crafted rather than manufactured for mass appeal. And in showcasing the redemptive power of art, Ghostlight makes a proud directorial debut look easy.
Resonating Beyond the Arthouse
Ghostlight arrives as a rare gem that connects with both die-hard indie fans and mainstream crowds. Propelled by its Sundance reception, early reviews praise the film’s emotional integrity and crossover potential.
Many compare Ghostlight to Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, another working-class tragicomedy that found commercial success. While some critique manipulations in service of crowd-pleasing, most agree O’Sullivan and Thompson strike a balance. They tackle familiar themes like grief and redemption through art without descending into cliché.
And the directors walk an effective tonal tightrope, leavening hardship with humor through riotous rehearsal mishaps. Dolly De Leon draws big laughs as the tyrannical Rita, buttressing scenes of domestic drama. Moments like Dan reluctantly running lines in bed reinforce the film’s realist edge.
That delicate balance ultimately pays off in a festively ramshackle theater performance where Dan finally exorcises his demons. We realize O’Sullivan has slyly mirrored Romeo’s plight all along – foreshadowing an earnest climax some may see coming, but which unfolds with such infectious joy that predictability barely matters.
Many critics laud Keith Kupferer for a career-making turn as this gruff workingman reawakened to life’s beauty through art. And the ensemble’s Chemistry proves the story rings true beyond the screen. With breakout potential driven by captivating characters, Ghostlight could delight general audiences as much as staunch critics.
Art and Catharsis Triumph
With Ghostlight, filmmakers Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson craft a thematically rich exploration of art’s power to heal. They prove themselves ever-maturing storytellers by balancing emotion and entertainment for a memorable film.
Anchoring it all is Keith Kupferer’s towering performance as Dan, a man imprisoned by silent grief. Seeing his metamorphosis into a soul able to embrace life’s beauty again makes the entire journey worthwhile. And Dolly De Leon nearly steals the film as Dan’s wonderfully weird mentor Rita.
But Ghostlight’s collaborative heart comes from its sense of togetherness. We bond with O’Sullivan’s lovable troupe of underdog artists at each quirky turn, willing Dan toward release alongside them. Until finally in a last act showdown between grief and creation, the stage exerts its cathartic pull – not just for Dan, but the audience.
Destined to be a Sundance sensation thanks to its stellar cast and skillful direction, Ghostlight offers a bittersweet triumph celebrating art’s power to heal. It establishes Kupferer as a captivating everyday tragic hero while heralding O’Sullivan and Thompson’s arrival in the directorial big leagues. Don’t be surprised if this resonant redemption tale succeeds with casual moviegoers as much as critics. Because when a film in equal parts funny, sad and inspiring comes along, we all win.
Ghostlight casts an earnest, emotional spell thanks to resonant themes, authentic characters, and the transformative power of art. Led by breakthrough performances and confident direction, this funny, sad, ultimately uplifting film marks a turning point for Keith Kupferer and directorial duo Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson.
- Strong lead and ensemble performances, especially by Keith Kupferer and Dolly De Leon
- Skillful balance of earnest drama and offbeat humor
- Authentic exploration of grief and the healing power of art
- Confident directing debut for Kelly O'Sullivan
- Resonant themes with crossover appeal beyond arthouse crowds
- Some occasionally manipulative storytelling techniques
- Plot becomes predictable in places, especially the ending
- Overstuffing of certain elements like the community theater troupe antics
- Uneven handling of tone, with some jarring shifts between heavier moments and comedy