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A touchy, star-crossed love story

If you feel you know “Romeo and Juliet,” see “Ghostlight.” Playing at the M.V. Film Center, the movie has the kind of quiet film smarts that sneak up on you, until they aren’t smarts at all — they are life and death love.

Example: It’s morning, and Dan, who repairs roads in Chicago, is getting up. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” a line “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical “Oklahoma!” plays under Dan as he drives to work in an everyday van. This is not a musical. He’s in Illinois. It’s not beautiful, and he’s not smiling. Something’s disjointed. A subtle irony signals something other than male repression is happening as Dan gets ticked off at Chicago drivers going too fast, too close to his jackhammering.

Dan’s mulling something. But the movie is not saying what it is. Instead, the cutaways and brief vignettes in quick succession start to enforce a light tension. Dan, directing traffic at his job, daydreaming, scanning the street, notices a tiny repertory playhouse across the street. Cut to the principal’s office, Dan with his wife Sharon and daughter Daisy — who has a mouth that is not fresh as a daisy — being suspended. Cut to Daisy in the street, facing off a car screaming at the top of her lungs. Is the irony intended distancer? Are these just scenes? Dan and Sharon’s tenderness with each other belie, and knit together something unspoken.

Levity dulls this tension, or suspends real attachment, or the ability to get in touch with characters who are themselves not in touch with their feelings. With a title like “Ghostight” — one stage light left on when a theater is closed is said to keep the good ghosts of past productions in the theater — it is apparent something is ghosting this movie. 

Cut to Rita, a 50-something cast member at the repertory theater, asking Dan to quiet machine noise. Dan responds, “I can’t, really.” When his co-worker snickers, Rita, a kind, five-foot-tall woman, blurts “What are you f______ laughing at?”

Cut to a skit with children, a moral message about dealing with anger, to Dan’s cramped Chicago house, Dan, Sharon, and Daisy in a cramped kitchen dinette. What becomes more apparent is Daisy’s sometimes simmering rage and foul language are interspersed with genuine focus, clarity. Cut to a school-enforced therapy session, well, not the session itself, but the waiting area where Daisy goes in and Dan demurs.

Instead he wanders the street, focus awash, until he peers into the tiny theater. People are moving in some loose, wavelike improv on the other side of the glass. He steps in. “What’s going on here?” The production the cast is loosening up for is “Romeo and Juliet.” 

Cut to Daisy and Dan in Daisy’s bedroom. “Ever heard of “Romeo and Juliet?” Dan asks. Daisy: “Yeah, it’s a movie. It’s old but good.” Then she proceeds to speak the “star-crossed lovers” prologue from memory without a hitch. Cut to Dan and Daisy streaming the 1996 video with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Hmmm.

You get the picture. “Star-crossed lovers,” possibly star-crossed family. But what’s ghosting the movie, the family, the simmering rage, the absence of something, isn’t spoken, directly. It is tracked, compounded, emitted. It is released, so to speak.

This awardwinning film is not a sleeper, per se. It is a ghoster, one seemingly wrapped in light (movie pun intended) scenes (theater pun intended) that stammer out and lovingly release a deep, entangled tragedy. It slowly wakes you up. It’s worth seeing.

Ghostlight will show July 13, 14, 15, and 17 at 7:30 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Get more info and buy tickets at bit.ly/MVFC_Ghostlight.

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