'Clara's Ghost:’ Alcoholics & Apparitions Mix Deliciously [Sundance]

Torrents of booze, New England apparitions and the struggle to maintain a grasp of reality while living amongst a shallow, monstrously self-centered showbiz family mix like a delicious, but deadly Jägerbomb in the terrific and drunkenly cutting, “Clara’s Ghost.” A hilarious, and sometimes disturbing look at the toxicity of family, this bizarre, tonally adventurous, and unusual comedy takes a sharp look at the raging asshole narcissism of actors (and family) and the ways we cope and escape from such hellishness.

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The feature-length directorial debut of Bridey Elliott, known for starring in the indie comedy “Fort Tilden,” she not only acts as writer/director/star, the multi-hyphenate boldly points a voyeuristically funhouse mirror lens at her life by casting her real life multigenerational acting family in the lead roles essentially playing vaguely fictional version of themselves: the semi-famous comedian father Chris Elliott (creator and star of the cult comedy “Get a Life,” “Cabin Boy”), actress sister Abby Elliott (“Saturday Night Live,” “Odd Mom Out”) and the one, non-professional family member, Paula Niedert Elliott, portraying the doting mom who’s been pushed to the margins in her own household all her life by her petty, ego-obsessed family. Meanwhile, Haley Joel Osment co-stars as a family friend and drug dealer who stops by for an extended dinner and bingedrinking session.

“Clara’s Ghost” takes place over the din of one sloshed evening, beginning with daughters, Bridey and Abby — former tween stars known as the Sweet Sisters — beckoned for a family weekend reunion via the unsubtle motivation of appearing in a photo shoot for a magazine profiling Ted (Chris Elliott), the patriarch who’s seen his star waning in recent years. Time hasn’t been so kind to the Sweet Sisters either. Both are struggling actors, competing for unremarkable roles and trying to get out from underneath the shadow of their teenage success. When the hooch appears — and let me tell you, it flows freely and liberally throughout — the family and their fragile acting egos devolves into a bitter, catty, shit-talking routine about auditions, booked roles, casting directors, and current career ups and downs, all couched in phony encouraging pep talks and faux sympathy that belies the mean-spirited envy and insecurity that’s lies not-that-well-hidden just below the surface of the skin.

Meanwhile, Mom, the Clara in question, already cast aside in this narrative, starts to see a vision of a supernatural force, a ghost that doesn’t look out of place in their 150-year-old Victorian home. Let me in, the specter cries, but soon Paula begins to realize this intermittently rematerializing spirit may very well be a solace and salvation away from her superficial and self-involved family. What transpires, besides a drunken mess, is something hysterical and often nightmarish, bordering on inebriated horror or comedy, depending on your perspective and whether you’ve had to endure and selflessly sacrifice your entire life for a brood of vain, self-regarding children. Truthfully, it’s both, and a kind of an offbeat Elliott-family absurdist riff on a ‘70s psychological thriller (cineastes will love its oppressive 1.33:1 framing).

Shot entirely on location in their real-life aforementioned home, the lines of whether art is imitating life or life is imitating art are as blurry as a plastered night on the town with the Elliott family. At least, the brazenly alcoholic and deadpan one portrayed in this film.

Paula-Niedert-Elliott-clara's-ghost-sundance“Clara’s Ghost” is brilliant in the way it negotiates the hysterical and the tragic, the claustrophobic and the warm. For all intents and purposes, Paula is going through a painful mental breakdown, seemingly having reached a breaking point with her egomaniacal kin. And while most of it is played for laughs, that strong undertow of melancholy isn’t accidental. Similarly, the Victorian house, practically a character in the movie with its odd trinkets and musty antiquities, is both a suffocating prison and inviting abode. And this dichotomy and juxtaposition speaks to the balance Bridley aims for and strikes. As much as “Clara’s Ghost” self-censures itself, there’s a palpable warmth and affection that shines through. You can detest what family makes you, the movie seems to say, they may chip away at your mental health, but you’ll always love them, very strange warts and all.

Riffing on their identities, Bridey’s movie literally invites each Elliott member to deride and parody themselves which leads to an entertaining game of one-upping each other, nearly every actor daring the other to appear more unlikable than they just did in the previous scene. And yet, these are charming assholes the audience never turns on. “Clara’s Ghost” is essentially a family self-roast that fortunately never goes up in flames. And as amusing as everyone is, it’s Niedert Elliott, the non-professional acting mom, who ironically steals the show. She’s a true revelation and her mix of vacant stares, devil-may-care blissfulness and intoxicated, seeing-ghosts bewilderment points to the heartrending mental turmoil suffering within.

It’s impressive just how fully-formed Bridey is as a filmmaker (her Sundance short “Affections” debuted at the festival in 2016) and how in command of the off-kilter tone she is (the apple hasn’t fallen far from the Elliott tree). “Clara’s Ghost” is like a cackling laugh that’s funny, but goes on long enough to contain faint traces of creepy uneasiness. Her selection and use of music is top notch too, from the unconventional choice of a percussion heavy score (by Stella Mozgawa, the drummer from War Paint), to the ironic and splendid use of goofy ‘60s pop nuggets utilized in sidesplittingly funny booze-sozzled montages.

There’s something both scathing and sad about “Clara’s Ghost,” and its earnest consideration of its fraying titular character underneath all the laughs and madness. This is a film that’s wantonly absurd and even silly, and yet, bubbling underneath it all, “Clara’s Ghost” never takes its eyes off its protagonist or our empathy for her even when she pushed to the edge of the frame both literally and figuratively. And Niedert Elliott’s performance is haunting, perfectly capturing that ambiguous space between comedy and drama that gives the movie its edge. The toxicity of family is a limitless goldmine for eager therapists or autobiographical dramaturgists digging for story, but family dysfunction has perhaps never been as amusingly self-skewering as it is in “Clara’s Ghost.” [A-]

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