Clara’s Ghost stages a tense dinner at which a frustrated middle-aged mother tells her family to stop making fun of her.
Writer-director Bridey Elliott’s feature debut Clara’s Ghost stages a tense dinner at which a frustrated middle-aged mother tells her family to stop making fun of her. What makes the scenario more potent and strange is that the film’s cast is largely made up of a single show biz family: That of comedian Chris Elliott, Bridey’s father.
Clara Reynolds (Paula Niebert Elliott) is falling apart. Her husband Ted (Chris Elliott), a middle-aged comic actor who’s struggling to find roles, humors his wife as she looks for a lost shoe on a rural two-lane road. Their daughters, former child-stars Riley and Julie (Abby and Bridey Elliott), are coming home to the small town of Old Lyme, Connecticut to celebrate the birthday of their beloved family dog Ollie. When the sisters’ pot dealer (Haley Joel Osment) joins the gathering, the barely coherent dynamic becomes even more fraught. All the while, Clara thinks she’s seeing the ghost of a young woman who used to live in the family’s grand Victorian home.
In a touch that recalls the works of grindhouse auteur Andy Milligan, that Victorian location is in fact the Elliotts’ home, and the family members all play a part parallel to their blood roles as husband, wife, and daughters. In press notes, Bridey Elliott clarifies that the characters she wrote for her family are all caricatures, fictionalized yet inspired by their true personas. It makes you wonder what their dinners are like.
Clara’s Ghost walks a precarious tightrope walk with tone, shifting from blue Borscht-belt humor, deadpan sarcasm and a disorienting point-of-view that signals the mother’s failing mental health. Typical of this mercurial tone is the movie’s versatile use of the Seekers’ hit 1967 movie theme “Georgy Girl,” of all things. When you first hear it, Clara is gleefully reminiscing, dancing by herself in the kitchen, but even that moment of nostalgia turns somber when the music switches off and you just hear the troubled mother singing awkwardly to herself. Returning later as an ironically sunny counterpoint to the family’s elevated tensions, and then in am eerily distorted form, the song is like the musical equivalent of the increasingly psychedelic-looking cats drawn by artist Louis Wain over the course of his mental illness.
Fans of Chris Elliott’s TV series “Get a Life” know well that he comes from a showbiz family himself (his father was comic legend Bob Elliott). So you wonder what family dynamic is at work in Bridey Elliott’s portrayal of what appears to be her mother’s nervous breakdown. Paula Niedert Elliott, in her first screen performance, is spot on as a woman who’s just had it with her family’s incessant jokes, often at her expense. You imagine that this is exactly what it’s like being in Chris Elliott’s family, which makes the film, by design, uncomfortable at times.
Fortunately, in the film’s press notes, Bridey Elliott explains that her script was inspired by her family but is not exactly like her family. Clara’s Ghost is s a labor of family love which, despite its frequent acerbic flights, suggests that however frustrating and downright unpleasant family can be, they’ll be there for you, albeit cracking salty jokes.