Sundance Review: CLARA’S GHOST Is Indie Indulgence At Its Worst

Prepare yourself to dislike Chris Elliott.

Back in the day, families would bore other families with slides from their latest vacation, riding their self-absorption enough to assume others would care about their trip to Niagra Falls for more than two minutes. You’d sit there, try to be polite, and quietly wait for it all to end. Clara’s Ghost is the affected indie movie version of that.

On the outset, the whole family angle is the film’s main draw. Written and directed by Bridey Elliott, the film stars Chris Elliott as an aging actor, his wife Paula Niedert Elliott as his wife Clara, their daughter Abby Elliott as their daughter Julie, and their other daughter Bridey as their other daughter Riley. The whole family is getting together for an airline magazine photo shoot and to celebrate the birthday of their amazingly cute dog. They also all have serious alcohol problems, so it should be a great party.

Chris Elliott’s Ted is an actor but his star is long on the wain, thanks mostly to his abusive treatment of women on set. Julie and Bridey were famous child actors once upon a time. Julie is still successful, while Bridey struggles to keep her career going. They are vicious, jealous and vain. Ted resents both Julie’s success and Bridey’s failure. They both resent his shitty parenting. And none of them, really, have much to think about their non-actor mother.

If you had to hang out with this group for more than ninety minutes (and thankfully, you don’t), it’s possible you might just go insane. This is exactly what happens to Clara. Because of some horror atmosphere established early on, you begin to get the idea she might stab them all to death. Alas, that would would be interesting and is therefore off the table.

Hollywood people making fun of Hollywood tends to feel too on the nose and weirdly self-serving. That is every much the case here. There are some good, funny lines now and then, but for the most part the shop talk in Clara’s Ghost feels like people indulging in the base complaints about the Hollywood machine from within that machine, so it’s almost like hearing bland people complain about their job on lunch break. No one is likable, no interesting points are made, so why should I care about these jerks?

The film’s only redeeming thread is through Clara, who has been pushed to insanity, sees a ghost every once in a while, and tries to bang Haley Joel Osment. The fact that she’s been driven crazy by this family at least makes her relatable. She’s manic and clearly accustomed to a life where she’s perpetually Hollywood adjacent. But she’s also very much a mom, getting caught up in the long history of her house, learning cleaning hacks online and watching cute dog videos on Facebook in the morning. There’s something very natural about her, whereas everything else in this film feels affected, chasing the tails of a million other indie dramas.

Unfortunately, nothing comes of her character’s mental breakdown, and you just watch a bunch of assholes act like assholes for no reason. So I would recommend not doing that and watching Get a Life instead.