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‘Ghostlight’ review: Dolly de Leon uses acting as healing in latest drama

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Ghostlight’ review: Dolly de Leon uses acting as healing in latest drama

Dolly De Leon's Instagram

What transpires is simple and poignant, no fireworks or extravagant set pieces, with many errors and amateur mistakes – but isn't this what healing looks like?

This review contains minor spoilers.

In Ghostlight, Dolly de Leon stars as Rita, an actress who unexpectedly becomes a beacon of change and healing for a grieving family: Dan (Keith Kupferer), his daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), and wife Sharon (Tara Mallen), who are, in fact, real-life family members.

After an unexpected tragedy involving their son Brian, life becomes unbearable for the family. While pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against Brian’s friend, Christine, Dan’s job and relationship with his wife and daughter is affected, causing undue stress for everyone involved. Everything changes when Rita invites Dan to join an upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet.

Ghostlight is an acting tour de force, with every member of the cast delivering performances of remarkable rawness. Keith Kupferer in the lead role is outstanding. Comfortable in long scenes with agonizing emotion, fluid in shifting between the dramatic and comedic. His scenes with Dolly are charming due to his embrace of awkwardness amidst the veteran actress’s ceaseless warmth.

Dolly as Rita embodies the lovable Filipina, balancing playful embarrassment of her workmate’s daughter with her warm, affectionate side. She is a lively spirit, twirling around like a mischievous fairy, sprinkling a sense of life both inside and outside the theater. Her extensive theater background lends her not just credibility, but also a deep relatability that bleeds through the screen.

Theater as an ‘integral’ part of life

Ghostlight is about processing grief through art, the beauty of sharing that pain, and bringing it to the stage to bare yourself. Art itself has a cherished relationship with vulnerability; it encourages molding pain into something beautiful – an act of reaching out to others to not only connect but heal.

This isn’t to suggest the film lacks hilarity. Directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson have an exquisite touch for dramatic balance, injecting lighthearted scenes of theater shenanigans and family banter that gracefully retreat to allow space for more personally evocative moments. Interestingly, Dolly de Leon is an executive producer for the film, and her behind-the-scenes influence is definitely welcome, particularly in the film’s tender homage to her deep-seated love for theater.

Watching the film, I felt myself healing alongside Dan, sympathizing with his plight, and hoping for his family’s recovery from grief. A wise friend once advised that during heartbreak, one should create art, as it leads to the most heartfelt expressions. Ghostlight gracefully illustrates that wisdom, transforming personal sorrow into a collective catharsis.

The choice of Romeo and Juliet as the community theater’s show also carries a meta aspect. It not only mirrors the story of Dan’s son, Brian, in its ending, but it compels him to confront and express the emotions that have eluded him and his family since the family tragedy. There is healing in theater, with the text itself acting as an ally to one’s beating heart. The performance of Shakespeare opens up introspection, a self-examination of guilt and grief, a ping-pong battle between scripted lines and uncertain anguish. 

When Dan, playing Romeo, looks upon Rita as a lifeless Juliet, the film captures the line between illusion and reality, sorrow and release. The invisible inner workings of an actor’s mind and heart are laid bare in that moment, never mind the fact that Romeo and Juliet are played by actors in their 50s, never mind that this is a play with low stakes and minimal consequence to everyone else. It is a moment of pure magic, a rare and mesmerizing instance of unguarded humanity.

Another aspect of theater that the film contends with is the shame associated with it, particularly through Dan’s initial secrecy about his involvement from his family. Society often views performing in a play as something slightly embarrassing or, at worse, stigmatizing. Yet, the film’s choice of a primarily middle-aged to senior cast infuses the narrative with a wholesome charm. 

Theater is presented not just as an extraordinary escape but as an integral part of life, where individuals like Dan can find solace. There is an inherent joy in acting – a liberating fun that provides an avenue for those who struggle to maintain normalcy. Reflecting on this, I was reminded of the countless times therapy, mental health practices, and similar avenues have been stigmatized. The way theater is shunned is no different.

Daisy, Dan’s daughter and a former school theater actor, lights up the screen, especially in her scenes with Dolly’s Rita. Rita, a veteran theater actor from New York, retains an undying passion for the arts, while Daisy finds herself at a crossroads, uncertain if she still belongs in a profession that no longer captivates her.

As Rita, Dan, and Daisy bond, they momentarily escape life’s burdens. These moments capture the relief many people find in the spontaneous, unexpected bursts of life, the singing, the play-acting, and the goofiness that acting seems to reactivate in them.

The ending of Ghostlight delivers a powerful one-two punch. The first comes during the deposition scene, where Dan testifies before his family and Brian’s friend. It is a scene of unrelenting despair, and Keith Kupferer’s astounding performance elevates the pain. The second punch lands when Romeo and Juliet is performed immediately after, as if signaling to the audience that the stakes have just been set up, and we are now here to witness its climax.

What transpires is simple and poignant. There are no fireworks or extravagant set pieces. There are plenty of errors and amateur mistakes. But this is what healing looks like. It isn’t perfect, nor is it straightforward; it is messy and intimate, and we are made all the more whole after it. In that regard, Ghostlight stands out as one of the finest offerings from the independent scene this year. –

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.