Carter Smith’s Jamie Marks is Dead could be pitched as an arthouse The Sixth Sense. It’s a ghost story with themes of adolescent angst and teenage bullying that’s driven by a great performance from Cameron Monaghan (Shameless) and striking cinematography from Darren Lew (who also shot some of HBO’s True Detective), but it also contains a script that hits too many of the same beats and a young adult fiction approach that feels narratively unsatisfying. The mood piece works; the storytelling falls flat.
The title is not a misdirect. It’s literal. Jamie “Mooney” Marks (Noah Silver) is found, mostly naked, on the side of a river in a small town. His death is mysterious but Smith’s film is less of a mystery and more of a commentary on how Marks was never noticed in life. A teacher refuses to even talk about the passing of the young man because he knows his students never talked about the quiet kid in the corner when he was alive. Why pretend like he matters now? No one saw Jamie Marks. No one cared about him. Who will miss him?
Adam McCormick (Monaghan) noticed Jamie. He’s a popular kid who never gave into the bullying and seems to be a more sensitive soul than nearly everyone around him. And so the fact that Adam “saw” Jamie when he was alive means that the young man gets the lovely gift of being able to see him when he’s dead. Jamie comes back to visit Adam, while also sometimes appearing to another unique character in town, the outspoken Gracie (Morgan Saylor). Gracie wants to look away (and lines like “Pretend that you don’t see him” speak a bit too directly to the bullying issue), ignoring Jamie yet again, but Adam is unafraid. He wants to help Jamie. Perhaps his single mother’s (Liv Tyler) recent life-altering accident at the hands of a driver (Judy Greer), who she then befriends, has given Adam a new look at the fragile line between life and death.
Based on Christopher Barzak’s novel “One For Sorrow,” Jamie Marks is Dead is at its best when it’s defiantly weird. Jamie asks Adam to “give him words” (like “sorrow,” for example), whispered into his ear and even mouth. Why? Who cares? It’s a creepy and yet fascinating idea. And the aesthetic of Jamie in those early scenes—cold, wet, and shivering—has a powerful impact on the viewer in that he’s both terrifying and someone who we want to protect. He looks fragile, scared, and not what you’d expect from a ghost story. Lew’s cinematography and Smith’s direction often place Marks on the fringe of the composition, a character always out-of-reach and placed in the background, as Jamie was when he was alive.
Sadly, Jamie Marks is Dead is one of those films that becomes less interesting as it goes along and mood is replaced by rising action. Monaghan’s performance is always strong but the repetitive plotting and dialogue spin their wheels far too often. As if they’re afraid to stick with their themes and feel the need to inject supernatural drama, Jamie and Adam meet other ghosts, including an angry one who threatens our protagonist. The addition of a “villain” for Jamie to protect Adam from may be thematically engaging on the page but doesn’t work in the film.
This is a work that only connects in its moody, dark, thematic scenes not as a mystery/adventure about a boy and his new dead friend. Whenever the narrative or the flat dialogue is forced into the structure, it disconnects. The mystery of what happened to Jamie, the oddly disconnected scenes with Jamie’s mother and new friend, and the teen romance of the piece never coalesce. It’s a film that I liked more when no one was speaking, getting into the atmosphere of this world without having to deal with the awkward plotting within it.