Ghost (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

You might have heard about this movie because of its selling point: It was shot on an iPhone. This approach of capturing images may impress some, but it does not impress me. What excites me, however, is strong storytelling containing characters worth spending time with and getting to know—which “Ghost,” written and directed by Anthony Z. James, offers the viewer should one bother to look just underneath the familiar plot: an ex-con having just been released from prison wishes to reconnect with his family, specifically his son who grew up without a father for ten years. As the ex-con rings the doorbell, his wife chooses not to answer the door. We assume it is out of fear.

It is a quiet drama—certain to be mislabeled by those seeking numbing thrills or noisy action as slow or boring—but lean a little closer and listen with intent. Clearly, the humanistic screenplay aims to make a thoughtful statement about the past, how it can be passed on not just through environment and socioecology but also biology. The father’s past involves violence—which is skirted around for more than half the picture. When specifics are finally revealed, it is not entirely surprising yet still quite disarming. Perhaps it is no accident that the occasionally irascible son walks around the neighborhood with something to prove, as if constantly carrying weight on his shoulders. His father wasn’t around to take off some of the burden.

At the center of the picture is two naturalistic performances by Anthony Mark Streeter (Tony, the father) and Nathan Hamilton (Conor, the son). Right when the picture ended, I felt compelled to find out if this was their first feature—not because the acting is in any way unconvincing or false. On the contrary, Streeter and Hamilton’s performances contain no vanity, just raw interactions of every day people who’ve been around the block—perhaps one too many times. They look tired, a bit sad, hopeful at times, and when they are surprised, especially when they try to hide it, we cannot help but smile with them. The relationship’s rhythm is so curious, I found myself observing the most minute facial details of two men who have just entered a new chapter of their lives.

A standout: when the father and son make eye contact for the first time, not saying a word for what it feels like ages, we are made to believe that these two already have a complicated history; it is exciting because we are dropped right in the middle of it. Acceptance or rejection—we are not given a solid grasp of how the relationship will turn out. Another standout: Tony meeting with a man with whom he used to work for. Dom (Russell Barnett) seems to have the money, the power, the drugs. He wears a nice suit. But really look at him, his habits, his dead eyes. All he has is a nice view from his office window. Tony might be a penniless ex-con but at least he has a purpose. He wants to live again, to be present, to be there.

The final act may come across contrived to some. To me, however, it is a natural destination—not just in a movie of this type but also in terms of what this specific story attempts to communicate about the cycle of violence, how ghosts of the past can haunt and threaten to derail a possible future of contentment and happiness. I admired that it faded to black when it did because it trusts us, after having gotten the chance to know its protagonists, to imagine what might happen next. I found it to be a terrific litmus test of how closely we pay attention to the people around us. Here is a movie that gives people the desire to see.

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