There are some really interesting ideas threaded throughout Clara’s Ghost, the new possibly supernatural (?) comedy from writer/director Bridey Elliott. Using the paranormal as a means of examining family dynamics, Elliott clearly wants to say something about motherhood, about selfishness, about the fear of being forgotten. Unfortunately, it only occasionally comes through in what is otherwise an abrasive comedy about abrasive people, like a Noah Baumbach movie that might have a ghost in it.
The movie’s cast is made up mostly of Elliot’s real-life family as they spend an evening in their Connecticut home: the writer/director also plays Riley, a former child TV star, and her sister Abby (of Saturday Night Live fame) plays her sister Julie, who is still a successful actor and is freaking out about her wedding in a number of months. Their dad, Chris Elliott (Get a Life, Cabin Boy) plays their dad, also an actor, but one whose best days are probably behind him. Finally there’s mom, the titular Clara (played by real-life mom Paula Niedert Elliott), who is seeing a ghostly woman that no one else can see. Is she losing her mind, or is it something else?
To be clear, Clara’s Ghost is not a horror film, nor is it anything that might traditionally be characterized as a genre movie; that it’s playing as part of Cinepocalypse, a festival devoted to genre movies, is a bit of a head scratcher. The most recent point of comparison I can make is to 2016’s Another Evil, another mumblecore-style comedy that uses a potentially supernatural presence as an excuse to have a couple characters hang out in a house. Clara’s Ghost is pretty much about four people hanging out in a house, except for when it’s about five people hanging out in a house because Haley Joel Osment shows up for a bit in a supporting role. There’s a good deal of enjoyment to be had watching the Elliott family bounce off one another, particularly in the throwaway dialogue and joking between the two sisters, where their chemistry is effortless and natural because, well, they’re naturally related. The movie also has some funny things to say about the self-absorption of showbiz types, mostly when it comes to the characters played by Abby and Chris Elliott. It’s in these moments that the comedy lands best.
Elsewhere, things get messier. Elliott’s shooting style leans towards being fussy: she shoots in 1.33:1 Academy ratio (joining the company of I Am a Ghost and A Ghost Story, so maybe it’s just a requirement of ghost movies?) and her camera is constantly moving and zooming, at once trying to be a fly on the wall and liven up the staging of a family sitting around and bickering. When the movie is depicting Clara’s point of view, the technique makes sense–the claustrophobia of the frame, the inability of the camera to settle, Stella Mozgawa’s incessant, percussive score all contributing to a mental state that is unnerved. However, there are large sections of the movie that are not told from Clara’s perspective, making the style somewhat incongruous to what we see on screen. Then again, the way Clara’s family marginalizes and ignores her is very much the point of the film, so Clara’s Ghost really is coming from her perspective even when it isn’t. I don’t know. I think I’m talking myself into appreciating the movie more than I originally thought. Isn’t that why we talk about movies like this?
I’m clearly still sorting out how I feel about Clara’s Ghost. It’s the kind of film I find interesting more than one I enjoyed. The performances are strong across the board and there’s a novelty to seeing the entire Elliott family act together, but too often the movie is so inward-looking and self-conscious to work as either comedy or drama. It’s certainly not a horror movie, and I don’t mean in that “nothing is a horror movie” way we have of talking about every horror movie now. I mean that Clara’s Ghost doesn’t have any designs of being a horror movie–unless, of course, it’s the horror of family dysfunction. On that level, it’s pretty scary.
Movie Score: 2.5/5
Editor's Note: Check here to read all of our reviews from the 2018 Cinepocalypse film festival!