In a year that has offered terrors real (Bad Samaritan), imagined (Annihilation), and supernatural (Hereditary), there’s been no shortage of tales to make audience’s blood run cold. Yet, for all the screams and all the nightmares, there’s really nothing more terrifying than a tale dripping with existential dread. Whether this was the intent or not in writer/director Bridey Elliott’s first feature film, Clara’s Ghost, a family tale in front and behind the camera, oozes frustration and isolation from the set design, dialogue, and staging.
Gathering together in their Connecticut home to celebrate the birthday of the family dog, the Reynolds’ seemingly simultaneously love and loathe each other. Father Ted (Chris Elliott) is an actor struggling to stay relevant, daughters Julie (Abby Elliott) and Riley (Bridey) are former child stars who can’t seem to make the transition into adulthood, and mother Clara (Paula Niedert Elliott) only ever touched the limelight through others. As Ted, Julie, and Riley trade barbs about their successes and failures, Clara begins to see the ghost of Adelia (Isidora Goreshter) following her around town, begging to be let into their home. At first, Clara disregards it as her mind playing tricks on her, but as the night of revels wears on and her family piles belittlement onto belittlement, Adelia’s presence becomes something Clara no longer wants to ignore.
Bridey’s film is a strange one to categorize. On the one hand, its frequent use of off-kilter humor suggests a comedy, yet, on the other, the off-putting tonal score, frequency of close-ups, and use of natural lighting gives off a general vibe of discord. Take the opening sequence in which Clara and Ted are driving down the road in search of something that has Clara panicked. Pulling off the road, Clara wanders out of the car to the middle of the two-lane highway to stare off into the woods. As the camera bounces between her face and the deep of the woods, a car from the opposite direction honks at a seemingly despondent Clara, utterly unaware of the insistent noise around her. Later, in Clara’s disastrously over-stuffed office, the audience gets a glimpse of Adelia in a book Clara borrowed from her local historical society to find out the history of their home. Here, the audience not only gets a glimpse of Clara’s private space – and therefore a look inside of her psyche – but they also learn of the madness that ran through the family that lived in the house before the Reynolds, planting the narrative seeds for what’s to come. This, however, feels as much of a strong wink/nod to offer the audience some kind of anchor for Bridey’s narrative as it does a clue to the spark of Clara’s mental descent. This story is the thing her mind latches onto – not the upcoming wedding of her daughter Julie, not the job her husband lost, or that her other daughter, Riley, is still struggling to expand who she is beyond child stardom – but the story of Adelia, a girl so bereaved to have lost her mind before the entire town. Recognizing this, the audience becomes embroiled in a story both real and hyperreal and are unaware if what we witness is the result of supernatural influence or a rational mind at the end of its rope. Cleverly, Bridey never makes it specific as to which is correct, offering clues to satisfy literal and interpretive audiences alike. Compounding this, Bridey not only stages her shots so that the family almost always seems physically close together, even in rooms which allow for more distance, but presents the final film in 4:3 aspect ratio, enhancing the already claustrophobic sensation of being cramped in with the Reynolds.
For all the creep factor Bridey crams into the frame, Clara’s Ghost truly hinges on the performances from the cast to bring it all together. Audiences familiar with both Chris and Abby know all too well how they can tap into the more strange parts of humanity – see: There’s Something About Mary and How I Met Your Mother respectively – and boy do they lean into the darker sides here. Chris removes some of the exaggerated deliveries that have made many of his performances so entertaining to play a more natural individual, making the characterization of Ted far nastier than if the character were a prototypical Chris performance. The same is said for Abby who removes the humor the audience expects and plays a role largely unlikeable. General audiences are likely less familiar with both Bridey and Paula, and both make indelible impressions. For her part as writer, director, and supporting character, Bridey executes all three with precision. It’s more than clear that Bridey has a vision for Clara’s Ghost and it’s present throughout every inch, even in her own self-effacing performance. As the receptacle for their characters’ vitriol, Paula inserts, within Clara, a potent sadness, that of a woman who’s lost herself in the shadow of her family’s quest for fame.
Where Clara’s Ghost becomes troubling is where the entire Reynolds family is pretty despicable and gives the audience very reason to root for them. Ted’s a mostly washed-up actor who can’t tell that his insensitive jokes and aggressive demeanor are the reason he can’t keep a job or appreciate the success of his children. Julie’s getting married in nine weeks, yet doesn’t seem at all interested in the man she’s marrying. Riley’s so focused on her own “artistic experience” that she seems focused on remaining oblivious to the fact that her experience creates no art. Clara’s either utterly dissociated with reality or desperately clinging to anything in the world that brings attention to her since the rest of her family will do virtually anything to keep the limelight on themselves. More often than not, it’s hard to tell if Clara is actually the victim or is just playing one. In summation, Ted, Julie, and Riley are largely rude, self-centered, and absolutely focused on keeping the party going. In contrast, Clara’s dysfunction appears as a by-product not of her rampant drinking, but as a reaction to her environment. It’s only when Clara appears to be overtaken by Adelia that Clara begins to take on more agency – though it gets fairly nasty – resulting in the family finally taking more notice of her.
Clara’s Ghost is an impressive first feature effort from Bridey Elliott. Her script and direction, in concert with her cast, create a tale that’s deeply unsettling both for its lack of clarity and its characters’ bent toward self-inflicting wounds. There’s so much nastiness within the family in the way they view each other and communicate (or not, as the case seems to be) that theirs is a pain manifesting something whether it’s the presence of Adelia or not. It’s a disquieting realization which creeps upon the audience and Bridey makes sure they don’t miss a moment of it. Conveniently, Clara’s Ghost hits theaters on December 6th and then VOD/digital on December 7th, so you have no reason to miss a moment either.
In select theaters December 6, 2018. Available on VOD and digital December 7, 2018.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.