In Clara’s Ghost, Bridey Elliott casts her own showbiz family as another showbiz family on the emotional rocks, inviting speculation as to whether the fiction of this narrative reflects the truth of her own life. Set over a single night, the film follows Riley Reynolds (Elliott) and her sister, Julie (Abby Elliott), as they visit their parents, Ted and Clara (Chris and Paula Niedert Elliott), in preparation for Julie’s marriage to an agent who’s nearly Ted’s age.
Over a series of succinct and sharply comic scenes, Elliott establishes the latticework of resentments that define the Reynolds family. Ted is a veteran comic actor with a career on the wane, and Riley and Julie are former child stars who’ve had differing adult careers. Julie has parlayed the success of her and Riley’s old television program into steady work, while Riley bums from her family and relies on stunt gigs that court nostalgia for the series. But Ted, Riley, and Julie are at least bonded—and bound—by acting, while Clara’s left adrift, seemingly identified by the family as a failure.
Working all together for the first time, the Elliott clan has a volatile and often hilarious rapport. Bridey, Abby, and Chris have similar rhythms, which pivot on a gift for casually throwing away the meanest and funniest lines and gestures; they essentially spin arias of passive-aggression and aggression-aggression. When Ted mentions Clara’s former cocaine habit, for instance, Riley elaborates with a quick series of hand gestures, air-scooping coke with a contemptuous abandon that’s shocking and uproarious. The film’s frames are alive with such bits of business, which evince a resonant understanding of the Reynolds family as performers whose highest art is, perhaps, merely cutting one another down to size—an art that’s fueled by much alcohol. (One of Ted’s best lines, exquisitely delivered by Chris, involves him requesting that someone else watch as he switches from vodka to scotch.)
Without this brand of performance art, Clara becomes untethered from reality, communing with a ghost named Adelia (Isidora Goreshter), who urges her to defend herself against the family’s endless insults. Correspondingly, Paula operates at a different tempo from her familial costars, as Clara often moves half a figurative step behind Ted, Riley, and Julie, though this slowness has its own caginess. Clara’s off-kilter timing allows her to eviscerate the family when they least expect it, such as when Clara ridicules Riley for her “embarrassingly entitled” Kickstarter campaign. (This proclamation is one of the film’s many auto-critical references, as Clara’s Ghost was partially funded by such a campaign). Mostly, though, Paula and Bridey place Clara outside of the Reynolds family as a wounded spectator; perhaps she’s the true ghost. And her deliberate energy is complemented by that of Haley Joel Osment, who plays a shaggy, heavy childhood friend of Riley and Julie’s with a humility so advanced it resembles self-loathing.
Elliott avoids the smug pitfalls of narratives concerned with privileged people drinking themselves into a stupor. She knows that the Reynolds family is ridiculous and that our attraction to watching artists castigate themselves for our cathartic amusement is equally indulgent, and she invests Clara’s Ghost with an ironic sense of social proportion, and without speechifying. Film- and theater-goers are drawn to rarefied misery because it imbues their own problems with vicarious glamour (Clara’s Ghost bears a caustic resemblance to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as well as to the plays of Tracey Letts and the films of Zach Clark), and Elliott shows how art allows us to pretend that we are the central tragic figures of our own micro world, often at the expense of understanding others. In Clara’s Ghost, as in real life, self-absorption begets disconnection which begets farce which begets tragedy.