Sundance 2018: Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost

On Film / The Daily — Jan 23, 2018

“For the second consecutive year, Sundance showed an Academy-ratio film with Ghost in the title, but Bridey Elliott’s feature directorial debut Clara’s Ghost is decidedly not A Ghost Story,” begins Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “Bridey stars along with father Chris, sister Abby and mom Paula (the only non-actor in the bunch, though she easily holds her own). The plot’s loose: sisters Riley (Bridey) and Julie (Abby)—former child stars as the Olsen-esque Reynolds sisters—come for a one-night visit home. Father Ted (Chris) has just lost his casting in a show being put together by Julie’s fiance and is feeling rancorous. Some magazine photographers come over to take photos of father and daughter and ask softball questions about what family means to them (Ted: ‘Family is the whipped cream on the sundae of life’); mom Clara (Paula) is conspicuously not included. The sisters plan to stay the night, so Riley calls high school friend/weed dealer Joe (Haley Joel Osment, blessedly still in Silicon Valley blithe stoner pocket). . . . Clara’s Ghost is basically a rumpus room session for five talented comic performers, all with a firm handle on measured, partially justifiable spite.”

“Building upon Affections, her 2016 short in which she played a woman who sought solace in the arms of a bum when she wasn’t satisfied with her current boyfriend,” writes Stephen Saito, “Elliott once again explores relationships from a unique perspective in Clara’s Ghost, investigating the warped family dynamics of a showbiz clan where concessions have been begrudgingly made for the good of all, but not necessarily for the right reasons.”

“Unsurprisingly, much of this is off-the-leash, unabashedly man-childish Chris Elliott-style material that frequently veers from mildly amusing to wildly cringe-inducing,” writes Justin Lowe in the Hollywood Reporter. “A degree of tolerance for these frequent outbursts of unrestrained, puerile humor eventually reveals a tender portrait of a neglected woman seeking solace in her vivid, perhaps deranged, imagination.”

“The in-joke air can only float this enterprise so far,” finds Dennis Harvey in Variety. “In the end, there’s not enough of distinction or substance to make this absurdist family comedy with a haunted-house angle feel like more than a short’s worth of ideas stretched too thin.”

Clara’s Ghost is brilliant in the way it negotiates the hysterical and the quite tragic, the claustrophobic and the warm,” argues Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “For all intents and purposes, Paula is going through a painful mental breakdown, seemingly having reached a breaking point with her egomaniacal kin. And while most of it is played for laughs, that strong undertow of melancholy isn’t accidental. Similarly, the Victorian house, practically a character in the movie with its odd trinkets and musty antiquities, is both a suffocating prison and inviting abode. And this dichotomy and juxtaposition speaks to the balance Bridley aims for and strikes.”

At the Film Stage, Dan Mecca notes that “plenty of character tangents are introduced and nothing is really resolved. In a way, it’s admirable in its messiness.”

At RogerEbert.com, Nick Allen suggests that the degree to which you’ll go for this one “greatly depends on how much you enjoy spending time with her family, if you find their off-hand banter funny and their meta references to being Elliotts interesting. It also depends on what you want out of movies that have some inkling of horror. With either of these genre elements, to her credit, she plays by her own rules.”

“We had a lot of movie to make in three weeks, and a very short turnaround for the Sundance deadline,” Elliott tells Women and Hollywood. “I wish we had more time to make it slow and steady, for my mother’s sake specifically. It was her first lead acting role, and I didn’t want her nerves to be affected by the frenzy of the shoot, but it all worked out.”

Ioncinema has questions for Elliott and cinematographer Markus Mentzer: “We were inspired by ’70s independent cinema, and I feel like there is a period-aspect to the 4:3 aspect ratio. We built on that period look in-camera by using older lenses, feeding off of interior practical lighting, and increasing the graininess of the film.”

Update, 1/24: Filmmaker asks Mentzer about influences on the look of the film: “A Woman Under the Influence, Wake in Fright, Interiors, Images, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Visually, we also drew inspiration from Edward Hopper, Gregory Crewdson, William Eggleston, Bergman and Todd Haynes’s Safe. I liked the way they portray loneliness in everyday landscapes, and I wanted to reflect a similar aesthetic in depicting Clara’s isolation.”

Update, 1/25: “There’s an occasional awkwardness to the melding of indie comedy and attempts at suspense,” writes Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly, “and it’s not entirely clear if Bridey Elliott actually wants her movie to be scary at times. Points, though, for how often the uncomfortable comedy scores, and for a great supporting performance by a richly bearded Haley Joel Osment, who pointedly does not see dead people here.”

Update, 1/26: “Many filmmakers never achieve what Bridey Elliott has managed on her first attempt,” writes Jessica Baxter at Hammer to Nail. “Clara’s Ghost is also a lovely gift to her mother. Paula is front and center where everyone can see her and appreciate her haunting performance. Paula Niedert Elliott might not be the next great character actress. But she understands Clara intrinsically and her portrayal is riveting and inspired.”

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