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Review: ‘Ghostlight’ makes an expressive, subtle argument for the healing power of theater

Community theater actors perform a scene from "Romeo and Juliet."
Keith Kupferer is compelling as Dan in “Ghostlight,” a small-scale indie drama with a huge heart.
(Luke Dyra / IFC Films)
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The films of Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson are simple but deeply felt portraits of people trying to do right by themselves and finding profound connections with others and within themselves along the way.

The Chicago-based filmmakers and life partners made their feature debut in 2020 with “Saint Frances,” written by and starring O’Sullivan, directed by Thompson, about an aimless 30-something finding a friend in the 6-year-old she’s nannying. Their second feature is “Ghostlight,” which they co-directed from a script by O’Sullivan, a similarly small-scale indie drama with a huge heart that fearlessly tackles the kind of big feelings that can seem impossible to manage.

As it’s a family affair behind the camera, it is in front of the lens too. O’Sullivan long had Chicago theater actor Keith Kupferer in mind for the lead role of Dan, a construction worker who stumbles into a community theater production of “Romeo and Juliet” during a time of personal turmoil, and Kupferer so happens to have an actor daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, and a partner, Tara Mallen, a stalwart of the Chicago acting scene, who slot perfectly into the roles of Dan’s fiery daughter Daisy and wife Sharon. With such close-knit family ties making up the production, “Ghostlight” is a film of uncommon intimacy, a reliable feature of O’Sullivan and Thompson’s work.

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The pair makes films refreshingly populated by characters that feel like real people navigating real situations. The circumstances of “Ghostlight” are in some sense heightened, and perhaps a bit too coincidentally serendipitous, but then again, so is life sometimes.

The emotional mystery of “Ghostlight” is best left for the viewer to discover, as Dan’s story unfolds like the petals of a blooming flower opening up to reveal a devastated inner core. At the outset, he’s attempting to manage a period of significant stress, struggling to hold together his family, including his troubled daughter and long-suffering wife. One afternoon, Rita (“Triangle of Sadness” standout Dolly de Leon), an actor from a local community theater, witnesses Dan blowing up on a driver during his road-work job, and ushers him inside him to participate in a read-through of “Romeo and Juliet.” “What is this?” he asks. “Your salvation,” she replies.

A woman leads a community theater.
As Rita, Dolly de Leon, center, delivers a beguiling and feisty performance in “Ghostlight.”
(Luke Dyra / IFC Films)

Making community theater, one often has to beg, borrow and steal to cast a show, so it’s not out of the question that Rita might cajole a blue-collar worker like Dan into a rehearsal. What’s remarkable is that he comes back, reluctantly joining in on the improv games, guided meditation and script work. These quirky people prove to be an escape for him, strangers from his community that allow him to exist in a space where he can be someone else for an hour or two. He needs it more than he lets on, and slowly, O’Sullivan’s script reveals that the particularities of “Romeo and Juliet” strike home for Dan in a way he never anticipated.

Kupferer is immediately compelling onscreen. It feels a bit odd to call his performance a breakthrough, considering his long theater and television career; he’s appeared in films by Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann and Steve McQueen. But this kind of lead film role is new territory for him. Mallen Kupferer is also a discovery, a firecracker who also conveys more nuanced teenage attitude, her Daisy bossing her repressed dad around, demanding he meet her on her level of explosive emotion.

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De Leon, herself a mainstay of the local theater scene in her native Philippines, fits into this Midwestern troupe easily, and delivers a beguiling and feisty performance as a serious New York actor who finds herself back in Chicago playing with the locals onstage. She sees in Dan a kindred spirit: someone who needs a hand, pulling him out of his rut and delivering the shake he requires to gain some perspective and insight. Her character is bit of a magical device to serve the story, but de Leon imbues the enchanting Rita with so much life and unpredictable energy.

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With an understated but tactile beauty, O’Sullivan and Thompson create cinematic worlds in which you simply want to linger, populated with recognizable people with familiar problems, but who greet every challenge with just a bit more empathy, grace, laughter and creativity than we might see in everyday life. They allow us to witness people moving through emotional obstacles, cracking open hardened hearts to let their humanity spill forth freely in waves of grief, embarrassment, anger, love and forgiveness.

This is a beautifully life-affirming fable about the power of art to heal, but really, it’s the people making the art that do the work. “Ghostlight” is a stunning and incredibly moving tribute to that process.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

'Ghostlight'

Rating: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: Opens Friday, June 14 at Landmark Theatres Sunset, West Los Angeles

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