'Clara's Ghost': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Never underestimate a novice.

Chris Elliott's wife, Paula Niedert Elliott, stars in daughter Bridey Elliott's feature debut, an offbeat family comedy world-premiering in the festival's NEXT section.

It's almost all in the family with Clara's Ghost, a comedic mystery featuring members of the Chris Elliott clan, including comedian daughter Abby and actor-filmmaker Bridey, who directs this resourcefully eclectic feature. 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.

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 film's diminutive domestic scale suggests streaming services may offer the warmest welcome, although a theatrical run could strategically capitalize on the feature's readily recognizable casting.

From the outset, Bridey Elliott's script suggests that for a suburban Connecticut homemaker whose husband is an obnoxious, unemployed actor and whose best friend is the family dog, unreasonable flights of fancy might perhaps be forgiven. In fact, nobody pays much attention to Clara Reynolds (Paula Niedert Elliott), whether she's reporting a lost shoe to the police or chattering on about the mysterious history of her 19th century home, unless it's her comedian spouse Ted (Chris Elliott) criticizing or ridiculing her yet again. His caustic brand of insult humor has earned him something of a following over his career, but with opportunities slipping away due to his reputation for on-set confrontation, he's mostly retreated to the bottle to keep himself distracted.

One of the few things Ted and Clara have in common anymore is their devotion to their two adult daughters, Julie (Abby Elliott) and Riley (Bridey Elliott). Forging divergent careers after a successful run as child stars in the '90s sitcom Sweet Sisters, the girls are making a brief return home to celebrate the birthday of their beloved dog, Ollie. Riley quickly kicks the festivities up a notch by inviting over her former pot dealer and high school buddy Joe (Haley Joel Osment), who readily obliges with a few grams.

With the addition of Ted's generously proportioned cocktails, the evening soon falls into a comfortable groove. Feeling like an outsider, the weed and booze intensify Clara's uncomfortable sense that she's being watched, after catching glimpses of an ethereal, white-robed woman earlier in the day. Following repeated sightings of the otherworldly apparition, Clara becomes convinced that it's attempting to make contact and her behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable, potentially posing a threat to both herself and her family.

With her slightly fictionalized account of a lovingly contentious showbiz family, Bridey Elliott brings a sympathetically feminine perspective to the competitiveness typical of any tight-knit group. Demonstrating that she knows her material perhaps too well, as in a scene when the typically unspoken professional rivalry among Ted, Julie and Riley emerges in full-blown confrontation, Elliott sometimes gets caught up in gratifying her family members' inclinations for self-indulgent performances.

Her dad, Chris, goes all in, liberally layering his snarky character's put-downs with exaggerated facial expressions and mocking vocal impressions, which seem especially mean-spirited when directed at his actual family members, even in a fictionalized setting. Although Clara remains Ted's most frequent target, he's not above ridiculing Riley for her failed acting career or baiting Julie after he's fired from the show they've both been working on.

SNL alum Abby Elliott manages to suspend any more extreme comic tendencies, presenting Julie as a pampered actress more concerned with her next plastic surgery procedure than her role on the show produced by her much older fiance. Bridey gives herself the least desirable part, playing a formerly beloved actor now barely surviving on reality TV appearances and her dad's monthly rent checks, no longer able to compete in the same league as her successful sister.

Infrequent actress Paula Niedert Elliott delights in the titular role with a quirky, sympathetic performance that gradually reveals the extent of Clara's psychological wounds. So somehow it's not surprising that in the depths of her loneliness she might become susceptible to supernatural influence. Or perhaps this is the real Clara, suddenly attuned to the mystical world around her. Osment's kind and receptive character seems to be the only one who really appreciates her gentle, introspective soul, debilitated by alcohol abuse and familial neglect.

Setting the action in and around the Elliott family home in Old Lyme, Bridey shoots the film with TV-style 4:3 framing, but this is far from the bright, shiny sitcom setup of Sweet Sisters. Moody lighting, handheld camerawork and frequent cutaways to disturbing images around the home all signal that something's dreadfully out of balance in Clara's world. Yet the New England-gothic subplot concerning the spirit that may be haunting Clara remains conspicuously underdeveloped, leaving the sometimes frighteningly frank family drama center stage.

 

Production companies: Smudge Films, Nighthorse Productions

Cast: Paula Niedert Elliott, Chris Elliott, Abby Elliott, Bridey Elliott, Isidora Goreshter, Haley Joel Osment

Director-writer: Bridey Elliott

Producers: Rachel Nederveld, Sarah Winshall

Executive producers: Christopher Burch, Chloe Gordon, Daniel Powell

Director of photography: Markus Mentzer

Production designer: Tory Noll

Costume designer: Caitlin Doukas

Editor: Patrick Lawrence

Music: Stella Mozgawa

Sales: UTA

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)

Not rated, 92 minutes