Due to the fact that they’re playing them, it should be noted that despite the superficial similarity of the self-absorbed Reynolds in “Clara’s Ghost” to the real-life Elliotts, a comedy dynasty that includes Bob Elliott of the legendary duo Bob & Ray, his son Chris, who went onto fame as a regular on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Get a Life,” and Chris’ daughters Abby (“Saturday Night Live”) and Bridey (“Fort Tilden”), one would be mistaken to confuse the two. After all, it’s highly unlikely the Reynolds would gather together for the purpose of making a film for one of their own unless a big payday was involved, as the Elliotts have done for Bridey, who rewards her family’s generosity with a film that, like her forebears, pushes comedy into fresh, uncomfortable territory, doing so with a distinctly auteurist bent.
Building upon “Affections,” her 2016 short in which she played a woman who sought solace in the arms of a bum when she wasn’t satisfied with her current boyfriend, Elliott once again explores relationships from a unique perspective in “Clara’s Ghost,” investigating the warped family dynamics of a showbiz clan where concessions have been begrudgingly made for the good of all, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Mother Clara put her own ambitions aside from the start to enable daughters Julie (Abby Elliott) and Riley (Bridey Elliott) to star on their own TV show as children, “The Sweet Sisters,” while father Ted (Chris Elliott) got a steady paycheck and a catchphrase of his own on the show, as the occasionally creepy fans who come up to him in restaurants remind him. With a birthday for their dog Ollie, a photo shoot commemorating an anniversary of the “The Sweet Sisters” and Julie’s wedding nine weeks out, the family have enough reasons to gather at their Connecticut home, but all are at a low point professionally – Ted is freshly stung from losing a job and still resentful of the fact he never had a starring vehicle where he was as prominently featured as his daughters, while his daughters find themselves competing with the idea casting directors have of their younger selves, if they get callbacks at all.
Although inviting a townie with weed (Haley Joel Osment) over to the house is meant to mellow things out, it only seems to heighten anxieties amongst the Reynolds, particularly as Clara begins to pick up on the supernatural apparitions that have long been rumored to take up residence in the home and Elliott, a former clerk at Kim’s Video, has quite a bit of fun using the aesthetics of classic claustrophobic horror films to punctuate the family’s ickiness towards each other. There’s a certain aimlessness inherent in the premise as the Reynolds find themselves at a standstill, and “Clara’s Ghost” sometimes feels as if its lost the thread itself, content to get lost in scenes of the family fooling around to blow off steam. (Then again with this particular family of actors in question, always at the ready with a cutting one-liner, it’s hard to blame the filmmaker for letting things run wild.)
Yet the film really coalesces around Paula Elliott’s turn as Clara, with Bridey lavishing her mother with the kind of attention she may have missed when she set aside her own career goals to raise their family in real life. Not only does “Clara’s Ghost” draw its considerable spirit from Paula’s enthusiasm for the part that seems like she may be making up for lost time, but crucially her warmth makes one see how Clara gradually wears down the defenses of her family to finally see beyond themselves in such a way that the film becomes genuinely poignant. In Elliott’s provocative debut, it’s the things that aren’t tangible that become the most real and although one might check out the film expecting a cringe comedy, it’s the unabashed love behind “Clara’s Ghost” can be felt deeply.
“Clara’s Ghost” will show at the Sundance Film Festival four more times on January 20th at 9:30 a.m. at the Ray Theater in Park City and 6:45 pm at the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City, January 24th at 9:30 pm at the Ray Theater in Park City and January 2th at 11:30 a.m. at the Egyptian Theater in Park City.