Producers: Alex Thompson, Pierce Cravens, Chelsea Krant, Ian Keiser, Eddie Linker and Alex Wilson   Directors: Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson   Screenplay: Kelly O’Sullivan   Cast: Keith Kupferer, Dolly De Leon, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Tara Mallen, Hanna Dworkin, Dexter Zollicoffer, H.B. Ward, Tommy Rivera-Vega, Alma Washington, Charlie Lubeck, Lia Cubilete, Matthew C. Yee, Marlene Slaughter, Bradley Grant Smith, Cindy Gold and Charín Alvarez   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B-

How might a person deal with crippling grief and guilt?  “Ghostlight” suggests that joining a community theatre group might have a salutary effect.  The small, ragged film is heartfelt but contrived, scarcely credible but nonetheless affecting.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the work of a couple with a theatrical background, writer-director Kelly O’Sullivan and her partner/co-director Alex Thompson.  It’s also unusual in that the family at the center of the drama is a family in real life.  Keith Kupferer is Dan, a troubled fellow who works on a road-repair crew in a small Illinois town (the film was actually shot in Chicago suburbs).  Kupferer’s wife Tara Mallen plays Dan’s spouse Sharon, an elementary school music teacher.  And their daughter Katherine Mallen Kupferer is Dan and Sharon’s fifteen-year-old daughter Daisy, whose obstreperous ways at school bring a suspension, and possibly expulsion.

The family’s sometimes fractious domestic life is explained by a terrible recent loss, the death of a son named Brian.  The circumstances behind his passing are doled out gradually, with a full revelation withheld until nearly the end; but all three survivors are haunted by it. They’re also angry: early on it’s disclosed that they’re involved in a pending wrongful death action that’s itself adding to their pain, as well as straining their middle-class finances.  One might compare the basic premise to that of “Ordinary People,” though there are, of course, many differences in the details

Dan is constantly on edge, a generally mild-mannered man finding it difficult to deal with his daughter’s outbursts, the cost of litigation, and his own emotional fragility.  He and the equally devastated but supportive Sharon are trying desperately to hold things together, but one day Dan has a meltdown when a reckless, abusive driver nearly hits him at work.  His rage is observed by Rita (Dolly De Leon), who’s previously complained in no uncertain terms about the racket he and his partner Mikey (Matthew C. Yee) have been making with their roadwork outside a building where, as it happens, she and her motley crew of co-actors are rehearsing an amateur shoestring production of “Romeo and Juliet” under the direction of Lanora (Hana Dworkin).

Rita induces Dan to help the group out by taking the vacated part of Capulet in their rehearsal, and ultimately is prodded into becoming a permanent member of the troupe.  Not only that—he’s pressured into taking the role of Romeo after arrogant Tyler (Charlie Lubeck), originally cast, stalks off after complaining that Rita, his Juliet, is too old (a remark that causes her to slap him).  Dan keeps his involvement a secret, until—in a fairly predictable turn—Daisy tracks him down and, after initially misconstruing his relationship with Rita, not only approves but, a theatre kid at heart, joins the production herself.  Eventually Sharon, who at first like her daughter thinks her husband is having an affair, comes around too.

As one might expect, the script portrays the other cast members as an array of quirky characters, and Tommy Rivera-Vega (Lucian), Alma Washington (Moira), H.B. Ward (Jonah) and Dexter Zollicoffer (Greg) handle the roles amusingly without going to farcical extreme, as they might have done.  De Leon ad Dworkin provide the leadership of the group, though, with the former the absolute sparkplug of the bunch, delivering a turn that’s instantly riveting at her first appearance and remains so throughout the running-time.  She’s easily the crowd-pleasing center of the theatrical troupe, though all are depicted in a sympathetic light as genial eccentrics, who show their soft side when, after learning of Dan’s loss, comfort him with a group hug   

The thrust of the narrative, however, is the effect the staging of the play has on the traumatized family.  The script leans strongly on the fact that the action of “Romeo and Juliet” dovetails closely with the tragedy that has befallen them (indeed, the correlation frequently becomes heavy-handed), a fact brought home when Christine (Lia Cubilete), the young woman at the center of their lawsuit, finally appears and the circumstances of Brian’s death are fully revealed.  The monologue that Kupferer delivers at the deposition represents the capstone of a performance that’s nuanced and moving.  After an initial reel in which the character is rather obnoxious, Mallen Kupferer’s Daisy becomes as much a crowd-pleaser as De Leon’s Rita, and although Sharon is rather overshadowed by her husband and daughter (though she does provide a venue at her school’s gym for the one-night-only performance in the final reel), Mallen brings a fragile pathos to the role that’s deeply poignant.

All three manage to convey the notion that for these damaged characters, participating in a community effort proves therapeutic, even if i the end the bits we see of the actual performance make it difficult to believe that it’s so well received by an audience that includes, we’re told, an entire high school English class, who are strangely silent throughout a staging that might have been expected to elicit some derisive snorts from teenagers. (Only ebullient Mikey interrupts with a few shout-outs to Dan.)

“Ghostlight” was obviously a modestly budgeted production, and cinematographer Luke Dyra’s visuals have a fairly raw, gritty look, and at times are underlit; the production design (Linda Lee) and costumes (Michelle Bradley) are little more than functional, while Mike S. Smith’s editing sometimes goes slack and Quinn Tsan’s score comes off as too whimsically magical, especially in the early going.

Despite its flaws of conception and execution, however, the movie builds a real emotional impact, and its sincerity wins you over.