‘Clara’s Ghost’: Film Review | Sundance 2018 BY SAEED NASIR


Chris Elliott’s wife Paula Niedert Elliott stars in girl Bridey Elliott’s feature debut, an offbeat family humor world-premiering in the festival’s NEXT section.
It’s almost all in the family with Clara’s Ghost, a comedic unknown featuring people of the Chris Elliott clan, including comedian child Abby and actor-filmmaker Bridey, who directs this resourcefully eclectic feature. Unsurprisingly, a lot 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 consistent outbursts of unrestrained, puerile humor eventually uncovers a tender family portrait of the neglected girl seeking solace in her brilliant, perhaps deranged, creativity. The film’s diminutive domestic scale suggests loading services may provide warmest welcome, although a theatrical run could strategically capitalize on the feature’s readily recognizable casting.

From the outset, Elliott’s script shows that for a suburban Connecticut homemaker whose spouse can be an obnoxious, unemployed professional and whose best friend is the family dog, unreasonable flights of fancy might perhaps be forgiven. Actually, nobody pays off much attention to Clara Reynolds (Paula Niedert Elliott), whether she’s confirming a lost footwear to the authorities or chattering on about the inexplicable record of her 19th century home, unless it’s her comedian partner Ted (Chris Elliott) criticizing or ridiculing her just as before. His caustic make of insult laughter has received him something of your pursuing over his profession, but with opportunities sliding away due to his reputation for on-set confrontation, he’s generally retreated to the bottle to keep himself sidetracked.

Mostly of the things Ted and Clara have in common any more is their devotion with their two mature daughters Julie (Abby Elliott) and Riley (Bridey Elliott). Forging divergent occupations after an effective run as child celebrities in the 90s sitcom “Sweet Sisters,” girls are making a short return home to enjoy the birthday with their cherished dog Ollie. Riley quickly kicks the festivities up a notch by appealing over her previous pot dealer and high-school buddy Joe (Haley Joel Osment), who conveniently obliges with a few grams.

With the help of Ted’s generously proportioned cocktails, the evening soon falls into an appropriate groove. Feeling as an outsider, the weed and booze intensify Clara’s uneasy sense that she’s being watched, after capturing glimpses of the ethereal, white-robed woman earlier in the day. Following repeated sightings of the otherworldly apparition, Clara becomes convinced that it’s wanting to make contact and her behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable, probably posing a threat to both herself and her family.

 

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With her slightly fictionalized account of the lovingly contentious showbiz family, Bridey Elliott brings a sympathetically feminine perspective to the competitiveness typical of any tight-knit group. Demonstrating that she understands her material perhaps too well, as in a world 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 participants’ inclinations for self-indulgent shows.

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

SNL alum Abby Elliott handles to suspend any longer extreme comic tendencies, showing Julie as a pampered actress more worried about her next plastic surgery method then her role on the show made by her much elderly fiance. Bridey provides herself minimal desirable part, playing a formerly precious actor now scarcely surviving on simple fact TV looks and her dad’s regular rent checks, no more able to compete in the same little league as her successful sister.

Infrequent actress Paula Niedert Elliott delights in the titular role with a quirky, sympathetic performance that gradually reveals the level of Clara’s mental health wounds. So somehow it’s not surprising that in the depths of her loneliness she might become susceptible to supernatural influence. Or simply this is actually the real Clara, suddenly attuned to the mystical world around her. Osment’s kind and receptive persona Joe seems to be the only one who really appreciates her mild, introspective heart, debilitated by liquor abuse and familial disregard.

Establishing the action around the Elliott family home in Old Lyme, Bridey shoots the film with TV-style 4:3 framing, but this is definately not the bright, shiny sitcom installation of “Sweet Sisters.” Moody light, handheld camerawork and regular cutaways to troubling images around the home all signal that something’s dreadfully out of balance in Clara’s world. The New England-gothic subplot regarding the spirit which may be haunting Clara remains conspicuously underdeveloped, departing the sometimes frighteningly frank family play center-stage.

 

Creation companies: Smudge Motion pictures, Nighthorse Productions

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

Director-writer: Bridey Elliott

Producers: Rachel Nederveld, Sarah Winshall

Executive providers: Christopher Burch, Chloe Gordon, Daniel Powell

Director of photography: Markus Mentzer

Production designer: Tory Noll

Costume creator: Caitlin Doukas

Editor: Patrick Lawrence

Music: Stella Mozgawa