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There’s an easy comparison to be made between first-time director Bridey Elliott’s Clara’s Ghost and Trey Edward Shults’ stellar debut Krisha, but it’s a deceptively simplistic one. Both films have the director’s family serving as the primary cast (including roles for the directors themselves in the key ensembles), both are about the unraveling of a family unit due to the struggles of an outcast member of that clan, and both aren’t easy watches by any means. But what Shults played unnervingly tense, Elliott instead tries to make us laugh. As such, Clara’s Ghost is a bleakly funny and incredibly difficult-to-watch cringe comedy that works on a number of different levels, and it’s a great debut for the young director, who shows real promise here.
The daughter of actor Chris and the sister of comedic actress and onetime SNL member Abby, Elliott recruited her entire family (and Haley Joel Osment) to fill out the cast for Clara’s Ghost, and what might be the most surprising thing about the entire enterprise is just how utterly fucking raw it is. Clara (Elliott’s mother, Paula Niedert Elliott) is the “unremarkable” wife and mother to a family of actors. She and her aging husband Ted (Chris Elliott), a comedian who just lost himself a huge gig, are both alcoholics, and regularly get piss-drunk at local watering holes in Old Lyme, Connecticut. She’s bad enough with the sauce that she’s starting to hallucinate visions of a woman racing about her home — perhaps the former owner of her house — and it’s slowly starting to tear her apart. When her daughters Julie (Abby Elliott) and Riley (Bridey Elliott), former child stars, return home to celebrate their beloved dog’s birthday, each of the family members gets wasted, and the bandages on their psychological wounds, fresh or otherwise, begin to come undone, especially after their pot dealer (Osment) comes over for a visit.
The anxiety ratchets up when Osment shows up, and milks it for all that it’s worth. Elliott and her cinematographer Markus Mentzer capture all of this drama in 4:3, which results in a tiny and claustrophobic frame that only adds to the tension between the members of the Reynolds family. It’s also color-corrected to look orangish, which gives it a home movie feel on top of it all, as if someone had stolen the reels of Super 8 film your grandparents filmed your dad’s home movies on and corrupted them. Though it’s an almost one-location story with a limited ensemble, Clara’s Ghost never really feels stagey, and the hallucinatory moments that Elliott has stuffed her film with only enhances that feeling. Her staging, as well, is quite nice, as she makes good use of her actors and the spaces they inhabit. She manages her chaos quite well — it never feels confusing even when it overwhelms you with ugliness.
And ugly Clara’s Ghost is! Each of these characters wouldn’t feel out of place at Paddy’s Pub over in Philly, and they’re foul-mouthed and selfish in ways that would make that gang blush. Those wounds they’re nursing are bitter, but they’re always quite funny (like Ted’s mockery of Riley’s emo phases in high school, or the breakdown Julie has over whether her 60 year old fiancee remembers a song from her youth, when he was 40) and occasionally quite revealing. But for all of the named talent on display, it’s Niedert Elliott who makes the biggest impression, evoking an unhinged Gena Rowlands as she gently fades away into madness over the film’s runtime. Elliott never loses sight of the fact that her mother is doing something quite special here, and their work makes Clara’s Ghost well worth your time.
Clara’s Ghost will be released by Orion Classics at some point in Fall 2018.