Clara’s Ghost is that rare movie that works despite the fact that its only grounded and likable character is a pot dealer.
Novice feature director Bridey Elliott (best known for a role on Silicon Valley) has cast her mother (Paula Nierdert), her father (Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman alumnus Chris Elliott), her sister (fellow SNL veteran Abby Elliott) and herself as a family of actors.
Thankfully, she’s the granddaughter of comic Bob Elliott (of Bob and Ray), whose droll, low-key delivery is apparently genetic. The rest of her clan is just funny enough to make being stuck in a home with them for 93 minutes worthwhile.
One gets a sense that Bridey isn’t as self-absorbed as her character because she gives her mother a remarkably meaty role. Clara (Nierdert) spends an inordinate amount of time in the shadow of husband Ted (Chris) and daughters. Julie (Abby) and Riley (Bridey), who were once child stars and haven’t seemed to have lost their self-absorption now that they’re nearing 30.
“…Elliot isn’t as self-absorbed as her character because she gives her mother a remarkably meaty role.”
Ted is happy to tell his daughters how to live their lives and demands the less successful Riley get a more conventional job, even though his own behavior gets him kicked off of sets. His ad-libs about Eskimo lady parts might have been funny in Full Metal Jacket, but seem out of place in a sitcom.
Ted likes to think of himself as a polymath, but his new painting hobby consists strictly of self-portraits. Clara, on the other hand, is on the verge of a breakdown, when she caught hassling a small town cop for a missing shoe, after her fill of Ted’s whining and her daughters’ berating her for not having the place ready for Julie’s second wedding. At least she gets some relief from some potent cannabis that a friendly landscaper (Haley Joel Osment) has provided.
Clara also starts to notice a dark-haired woman (Isidora Goreshter) whispering to her and later yelling at her. Her contact with the lady in the long, white gown is fitful. She never says more than three or four words at a time, but it’s more attention than she’s received in years.
If you ever want to hear laments about being famous, you can listen to just about any Pink Floyd album that Roger Waters dominated. Thankfully, Clara’s family could be described as “working class” thespians. Strangers recognize them, and they’ve got IMDB pages.
“…she also can effortlessly switch from funny to creepy.”
Nonetheless, they live from gig-to-gig, and their lives, while relatively comfortable, seem far from glamorous. When a magazine photographer comes by for a piece on the family, he refers to Julie as “the pretty one” and Riley as “the other one.”
They also get stalked by a creepy fan or two but can’t get anything more substantial than someone else’s anonymous Instagram posting.
Bridey Elliott can expectedly churn out clever bon mots, but she also can effortlessly switch from funny to creepy. The mythology behind the title character is little more than a collection of rumors, but Elliott understands that it’s sometimes scarier if we don’t know about the mysterious figure wandering outside the house. She also avoids jump scares and other annoying horror movie tropes that wind up negating the thrills of a lot of ghost stories.
Unlike some of her characters, Bridey has a future. It might be interesting to see if she can tell a story that doesn’t involve the entertainment industry. That said, her sense of tone and her ability to string words together shows she has more to offer comedically than a semi-famous last name.
Clara’s Ghost (2018) Written and directed by Bridey Elliott. Starring Paula Nierdert, Chris Elliott, Abby Elliott, Bridey Elliott, Haley Joel Osment, and Isidora Goreshter. Clara’s Ghost played as part of the NEXT competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
7 out of 10