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“Ghostlight” Finds Healing in Unexpected Places

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 18: (L–R) Tara Mallen and Katherine Mallen Kupferer attend the “Ghostlight” premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 18, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Robin Marshall/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

“As we open this 40th edition of Sundance, I really can’t think of a better film to share with you today,” says Eugene Hernandez, director of the Sundance Film Festival and head of public programming, before the Prospector Square Theatre premiere of Ghostlight, the opening film of the 2024 Festival in Park City, Utah. Set in Chicago, where filmmakers Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson live, Ghostlight centers on a family and a community brought together by the power of the arts — specifically, a tiny community theater production of Romeo and Juliet. “We’re here to have the same kind of communal experience together, watching a movie,” says Hernandez.

Screening as part of the Festival’s Premieres section, Ghostlight finds Dan, Sharon, and their daughter, Daisy, reeling from a recent family tragedy. After soft-spoken construction worker Dan has a tense altercation in the road with a careless driver, a stranger from across the street invites him inside a nondescript theater, and consequently into another world. “Sit down and play pretend for an hour, and then you can go back to your life,” says Rita, portrayed by the incomparable Dolly de Leon. Before he knows it, Dan gets roped into Romeo and Juliet, a play that ultimately connects him and his family in unexpected ways. 

The warmth and complex emotions of this family feel genuine, and for good reason — actors Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen, and Katherine Mallen Kupferer are an actual, real-life family. And this film felt like a perfect fit.

“I wrote it with him [Keith] in mind,” says O’Sullivan at the post-premiere Q&A. “He and I had done a play together a while ago, and so I was like, ‘That’s our guy.’” Katherine Mallen Kupferer, who portrays the strong-willed teenage Daisy, remembers hearing from the casting director that the screenplay felt like it was written for Keith’s whole family.

The film’s casting director, Mickie Paskal, was intent on getting the whole family involved. “Our friend Mickie said, ‘I’m gonna tell them they need to cast you,’ and I laughed, because that doesn’t usually work,” notes Tara Mallen, who plays Sharon, to a chuckling audience. Mallen didn’t expect it to work out, but, luckily, O’Sullivan followed up with her. “She sent me the screenplay, and I read it that night. And I was so blown away by the beauty of the play and how I felt it captured our family in such a beautiful and unique way, and then two weeks later we started shooting.”

The feeling of family in the film, both on screen and behind the scenes, transcends blood relations. The cast of Romeo and Juliet comprises an eclectic collage of individuals — the actors playing the titular characters are well past their teenage years — but the experience creates a unique bond among them. And that’s a bond deeply understood by the cast of Ghostlight, who come from the world of theater themselves.

 “I’ve gotten to work on a few things with Alex and Kelly over the years. They’re dear friends of mine. I think this is the best film about theater that I’ve ever seen,” says Bradley Grant Smith, who wrote a song for the film in addition to being in the cast. “I like it when we get to see people being kind to each other on film, or people choosing warmth. You don’t see it very much.”