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Actors and ghosts take center stage in new film "Ghostlight"

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The title of the indie film "Ghostlight" refers to a theatrical superstition that a light bulb kept lit onstage keeps the theater ghost company, even when actors are not present. Critic Bob Mondello says in the movie, actors and ghosts are both very much present.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Dan is a construction worker who may be an artist with a jackhammer but who's a mess with anything requiring a more delicate touch. A family tragedy has left him with trouble managing his temper. And his 15-year-old daughter, Daisy, hasn't made things any easier by shoving a teacher at school.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

KEITH KUPFERER: (As Dan) Is there anything we can do - community service, letter of apology? Can I give you a kidney?

CHARIN ALVAREZ: (As Principal Santos) Daisy has had plenty of chances already. This is her last one. Did you reach out to the therapist I recommended?

MONDELLO: The whole family needs therapy. Dan and his wife, Sharon, are at wits' end...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

TARA MALLEN: (As Sharon) I have no idea what to do.

MONDELLO: ...As Daisy acts out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) Get out of the street.

MALLEN: (As Sharon) Are you kidding?

MONDELLO: But even after he has a meltdown at work that's likely to get him fired...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) Stop. Just stop.

MONDELLO: ...Dan's not inclined to ask for help. A witness to the meltdown, a pint-sized woman named Rita...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

DOLLY DE LEON: (As Rita) Hey.

MONDELLO: ...Seems to sense...

DE LEON: (As Rita) Hey.

MONDELLO: ...That Dan won't ask, so she does the asking.

DE LEON: (As Rita) I need your help with something.

MONDELLO: The something is a community theater "Romeo And Juliet," and Dan reluctantly reads a part during rehearsal badly...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

DE LEON: (As Rita) It's your line.

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) What noise...

DE LEON: (As Rita) Louder.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Remember - all the way back of the house.

MONDELLO: ...And an hour or so later finds himself treated as a new cast member.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Welcome aboard, sir.

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) I'm just helping out for tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's what I said three years ago.

MONDELLO: Though he has no intention of going back, Dan's curious enough that evening to check in with his daughter, a veteran of middle school plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) Do you know this play, "Romeo And Juliet"?

KATHERINE MALLEN KUPFERER: (As Daisy) Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) Whoa.

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) We had to learn it for AP English.

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) Well, I've never seen it.

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) Seriously? The movie's a classic.

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) What happens?

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) Here's a hint. It's a tragedy.

MONDELLO: A tragedy that intersects with Dan's family tragedy in "Ghostlight," though filmmakers Kelly O' Sullivan and Alex Thompson lean into the humor of the theater parts, as when a suspicious Daisy follows her father downtown and stumbles on a rehearsal with an intimacy coordinator...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) Hey.

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) Daisy.

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) Say hi to mom, cheater.

MONDELLO: ...Where he's kissing Rita.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

DE LEON: (As Rita) Is this your daughter? She's lovely.

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) You knew he had kids? How could you do this?

HANNA DWORKIN: (As Lanora) Excuse me.

MONDELLO: The director comes out of the shadows.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) Oh, God. Is this a threesome?

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) It's fake. It's for a play.

MONDELLO: As the drama on stage starts to mirror Dan's life...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) What play?

MONDELLO: ...He is at once anguished and comforted by the misfit amateurs he's emoting with, all amusingly played by seasoned Chicago stage actors. And the filmmakers have added frames within frames by casting Keith Kupferer as construction worker Dan, his actual wife, Tara Mallen, as Dan's wife, Sharon, and their daughter Katherine as their screen daughter, Daisy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOSTLIGHT")

K KUPFERER: (As Dan) How'd you memorize all those lines? And you never seem stressed about it.

K M KUPFERER: (As Daisy) Dad, the lines are the easy part. The hard part is the emotional journey, living truthfully in imaginary circumstances, blah, blah, blah.

MONDELLO: The central theater on varying emotions concept is a tad on the nose, but the performers keep things grounded and authentic. "Triangle Of Sadness" scene-stealer Dolly De Leon is an empathetic wonder as Rita, a 50-something Juliet who is, by turns, as amusing, endearingly feisty and utterly believable as "Ghostlight" itself.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIIV'S "(DRUUN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.