Playing like a YA film whose premise hasn’t had the benefit of a best-selling test drive in print, Claudia Myers’ Above the Shadows imagines a world in which a mother’s death can turn her loving daughter literally invisible, doomed to live as a phantom until she solves a moral riddle as an adult. The magical misfire will likely flummox admirers of Myers’ well-received 2014 returning-veteran drama Fort Bliss, and would likely go unnoticed if not for the presence of Olivia Thirlby in the lead. Though the actor takes her role seriously, audiences will have difficulty doing the same.
Thirlby is Holly, who explains her condition with flashbacks to a once-happy childhood. She kept her mother (Maria Dizzia) company through her fight with cancer, but when her mother died, she says, “I began to fade.” This isn’t a figurative withdrawal from life: Soon, the girl’s father (Jim Gaffigan, not given much to do here) and siblings couldn’t see or hear her as she stood in the kitchen. They didn’t even remember she existed.
Years later, Holly has found ways to get through daily life in Manhattan (she gets work assignments and grocery deliveries via text), and has put her invisibility to uninspired use: While she might well have played Robin Hood, stealing billions from finance bros, or spent her life uncovering government corruption, she instead is a tabloid freelancer, following celebs into douchey clubs and photographing what they do when they think nobody’s around. What a drag.
One night, a nightclub bouncer (Alan Ritchson’s Shayne) shocks Holly by catching her in the act. He sees her, chases her down and ejects her, then is befuddled by her belief that she’s invisible. The bouncer used to be a MMA champ married to a movie star, and his career ended when Holly’s camera caught him having an affair. What if he can see her because of what she did to him?
Those looking for logic in this Twilight Zone-y premise might go a few directions, most of which are dead ends. It seems Holly’s easy first move might be to skip across SoHo to find some other celeb whose life she wrecked and see if that person sees her. Instead, after convincing Shayne that her story is real, she sets out to get him back the career she destroyed. She sneaks into the home of a current champion, for instance, to find evidence of his steroid use and blackmail him into a high-profile bout with Shayne. Soon, the swole sad-sack is on a path back to the limelight.
And, despite a complete absence of chemistry between Thirlby and Ritchson, he’s on a path toward romance as well. Holly, who hasn’t been seen by anyone since before adolescence, is obviously a virgin, and the pair share a magical night together trapped on Shayne’s building’s roof. But soon it seems that Shayne might want not just his career but his high-profile marriage back as well. Holly feels betrayed, they have a falling out, and a crisis of introspection begins.
Sadly, the answers that emerge from this crisis fail to give any satisfying literal explanation to the film’s central metaphor — and the metaphor itself seems misplaced. Most people on the planet can claim to feel unseen in one sense or another; while the trauma of losing the parent you’re closest to might trigger that kind of experience, the film’s central plot has nothing to say about that childhood grief. Though it may be amusing to watch Holly sneak around and expose others’ lies, it would be much more fun if her own story rang true.
Production company: Hipzee
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Olivia Thirlby, Alan Ritchson, Justine Cotsonas, Owen Campbell, Jim Gaffigan, Maria Dizzia, Megan Fox
Director-screenwriter: Claudia Myers
Producers: Rob Baunoch III, Khris Baxter, Mark Schacknies, Tara Sickmeier
Executive producers: Pete Conlin, Kirk D’Amico
Director of photography: Eric Robbins
Production designer: Timothy Whidbee
Costume designer: Samantha Hawkins
Editor: Kathryn J. Schubert
Composer: Kaki King
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent