Film Review: Ghostlight


Directors: Alex Thompson, Kelly O’Sullivan
Little Engine and Runaway Train
In Theaters: 06.21

As someone who grew up in the world of live theater, along with an appreciation for it from my family, I’m easily drawn to films that capture that world with loving accuracy.  Christopher Guest’s 1996 small-town pageant mockumentary Waiting For Guffman is still my favorite comedy.  As a major Shakespeare nerd, I know that show business cannot stand on comedy alone, and Ghostlight provides a moving tragedy that is every bit as definitive a film for me. 

Dan (Keith Kupferer) is a construction worker struggling with depression after the death of his son, Brian. Dan’s daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.) is acting out at school, and the emotional distance between Dan and his wife Sharon (Tara Mallen) is only growing. As Dan works a job on the street where a community theater group is rehearsing a production of Romeo and Juliet, former New York stage actress Rita (Dolly de Leon, Triangle of Sadness) pulls a reluctant Dan in as a member of the cast. As rehearsals progress, Dan finds unexpected comfort and purpose in the play, despite the uncomfortable parallels between the story and his own family tragedy. As Daisy and Sharon become involved in the production, the family finds the experience providing an outlet to confront their shared loss together.

Ghostlight emerged as a hot ticket after premiering at Sundance Film Festival 2024, and has already developed a lot of fans. The small number of detractors make their argument based on the feeling that the film too contrived, as the plot involving Brian is so strikingly similar to Romeo and Juliet. I have to agree that Ghostlight is rather on the nose—I just don’t agree that it matters. There’s so much honest emotional resonance and universal truth in the film, and the heightened reality of the story plays so much like a Shakespearean drama set in modern times that I actually found the less-subtle elements of the story to work in its favor. The family’s journey of healing is incredibly moving, and a movie that portrays community theater as a shelter for broken people looking to be someone else for a while and escape into a safe space is long overdue. 

The use of a real-life acting family in the roles of Dan, Sharon and Daisy is far more than a gimmick, and it plays beautifully. There’s a sense of believability and connection between them that’s truly magical, and it all adds to the theme of the thin veil between drama and reality. Keith Kupferer is magnificent as Dan, portraying pain, stubbornness and more love than he knows how to express with such a sense of in-the-moment realism that watching him is a privilege. Tara Mallen is wonderful as the long-suffering Sharon, pulling some unforgettable moments from the simplest of lines. The breakout star is Katherine Mallen Kupferer as Daisy, the spunky yet traumatized daughter who is the true performer of the family. Katherine commands the screen with such lovable spirit that it’s well worth the price of a ticket just to watch her belt out “I Can’t Say No” from Oklahoma! De Leon is luminous as as Rita, a character who is interesting enough to be the lead in her own movie. 

Ghostlight is an authentic and powerful film that earns the tears and moments of joy through the reality that its cast brings to it, and through the sincerity of its portrayal of the ways families alternately hurt each other and lift each other up. It’s a classically dramatic story with a sense of grand theatricality, yet it remains rooted in real life—for me, it stands as a true classic for the ages. –Patrick Gibbs 

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