(The 2018 Sundance Film Festival runs January 18-28 and Hammer to Nail promises more reviews than any other outlet! Stay tuned for interviews, features and reviews…)
All that most moms* really want is to feel appreciated. Of course, everyone has a different metric for what that entails. But for the most part, it doesn’t mean gifts or grand gestures. It definitely doesn’t mean homemade coupons for foot massages. Just a simple “thank you” every once in a while, would suffice. They want someone to notice (and care) that they did your laundry or stayed up late cleaning the kitchen. After all, “Somebody has to do it.” But being a mom is practically the denotation of a “thankless job”. And when someone spends 20–odd years getting shit done for their family, the lack of appreciation can take its toll. That’s what happens to the titular matriarch in Bridey Elliott’s wonderful debut, a gothic black comedy called Clara’s Ghost. (*Editor’s note of disclosure: Bridey Elliott is a “friend” of this site and was a juror for our 2015 short film contest).
Bridey cast her real-life showbiz family to play their on-screen counterparts. But you needn’t be familiar with the Elliott oeuvre to understand the archetypes that comprise the fictional Reynolds family. Ted (Chris Elliott, Get a Life), is the washed-up patriarch, still doing the same man-child shtick that made him famous in the 1990s. Only it’s not as cute on a man who almost qualifies for senior discounts. In fact, it cost him his most recent job. Though the now-grown daughters started out together on a popular tween sitcom, their careers after The Sweet Sisters diverged. The older sister, Julie (Abby Elliott, SNL) is the family’s only working actor, while the younger daughter, Riley, is in the midst of a very long, partly self-inflicted dry spell.
When Julie and Riley visit the 17th century antique they call their childhood home, the family falls back into old patterns. The girls and Ted compare notes and bicker about showbiz prospects, all but ignoring Clara, unless they are teasing or berating her for something.
Clara (Paula Niedert Elliott) is the only non-famous member of the family, and it’s clear before her daughters even arrive that she still hasn’t settled into her life post-child rearing.
Clara drinks wine alone, makes snarky asides to the family dog, and leaves a drunken, rambling voicemail of appreciation for the winemakers. Niedert Elliott is also not a professional actress, but one gets the impression that playing an underappreciated mother to her self-obsessed showbiz family isn’t much of a stretch. She dances alone in the kitchen to Georgy Girl by the Seekers with an abandon that is clearly a novelty for her.
When we first meet her, Clara despondently searches for something along a country road while her exasperated husband waits impatiently in the car. At the police station, we learn she is searching for a mate to her shoe. And not even the shoe that she is wearing. This is truly a woman on the verge.
Throughout a magazine photo shoot and a birthday party for Ollie the dog, Clara is mostly relegated to the background. At one point, the photographer assures one of the girls that they can Photoshop their mother out, as she is not famous enough to appear in the profile about the importance of family in show business. Clara almost feels seen by Joe (Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense), a family friend who brings weed to the girls. Joe enjoys Clara’s Martha Stewart impression and politely answers her probing mom questions. But then Ted invites Joe to the Ballroom so he can, “watch [Ted] switch from vodka to scotch.”
As the evening progresses, Clara’s visions of dead girl associated with their house get more and more intense. The film’s tone impeccably builds from darkly comedic to spooky and sinister. While the rest of the family has a bacchanalian dance party, Clara remains alone in the kitchen and that’s when things really get wacky.
Though it’s her first feature, Bridey is clearly a studied filmmaker. She doesn’t just understand her father’s signature comedy formula that so deftly combines pathos and lowbrow humor. Her brand of comedy is doused with the dark paranoia of a Roman Polanski film. She also knows how to set a mood and build tension. She conveys multiple layers with a single shot of a soused Ted singing to himself into an antique mirror. Her camera dances with its subjects. She’s not afraid to get so close to her characters that you can see into their souls. Many filmmakers never achieve what Bridey Elliott has managed on her first attempt.
Clara’s Ghost is also a lovely gift to her mother. Paula is front and center where everyone can see her and appreciate her haunting performance. Paula Niedert Elliott might not be the next great character actress. But she understands Clara intrinsically and her portrayal is riveting and inspired. If this is Bridey Elliott’s way of saying thank you, it’s a hell of a lot better than a homemade coupon.
*(Moms aren’t always part of what makes a family, and they aren’t always the primary caregivers. But this movie is about a mom in a traditional American household. So in the interest of simplicity, please excuse the generalization.)
– Jessica Baxter (@tehBaxter)