“Phantom Halo” tries to become a modern Shakespearean tragedy and ends up as a painfully generic family crime drama. The Shakespeare connection is not really far fetched, since Antonia Bogdanovich’s (yes, Peter Bogdanovitch’s daughter, he executive produced the film) feature directorial debut, about a family struggling to survive amidst a barrage of economic hardships, contains a father-son duo who are obsessed with the Bard. Bogdanovich’s film even begins with a run of the mill art house black-and-white dream sequence, the kind that Peter Dinklage in “Living in Oblivion” would have made fun of, as the unnecessarily dour voiceover recites the famous soliloquy from “Macbeth.” Alas, “Phantom Halo” tries to be a tale full of sound and fury, but in the end it signifies nothing.
Co-written by Antonia Bogadanovich and Anne Heffron, and based on Boganovich’s short film, “My Left Hand Man,” “Phantom Halo” follows the exploits of the Emerson family. Warren (Sebastian Roche), the family’s useless patriarch, was once a promising Shakespearean actor, but now spends his time owing large sums of money all over L.A. thanks to his crippling alcohol and gambling addictions. The mother left without warning a long time ago, so the burden of providing for the family rests on two brothers, Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Beckett (Luke Kleintank). Yes, of course I noticed the obvious names as well, this is as subtle as “Phantom Halo” gets.
Samuel’s story is by far the most interesting one, and it remains criminally underdeveloped in favor of Beckett’s common crime melodrama. Home schooled by Warren to become an expert on Shakespeare and practically nothing else, Samuel spends his days earning money for the family as a street performer in Santa Monica, soulfully delivering The Bard’s greatest hits to an unsuspecting crowd. He’s also obsessed with a comic that gives the film its title, about a family of superheroes who gain their powers through mud. Samuel believes that, just like the family in the “Phantom Halo” comic, his family can also rise from the mud in order to make something of themselves.
This thematic comic book connection is an interesting one, especially considering that it comes from a character who builds his life philosophy through two disparate cultural influences. Unfortunately, the screenplay spoon-feeds the film’s messages through clunky expositional dialogue instead of trusting the audience to figure it out for themselves. In Ang Lee’s excellent “The Ice Storm,” the protagonist, played by Tobey Maguire, was a big fan of The Fantastic Four, but Lee wisely left it to the audience to understand the symbolism between the comic and the character’s own dysfunctional family. The love-hate relationship between the draconian drunk Warren, who pushes his son to his limits so the boy can perform better, and Samuel, who looks up to his father while also despising him in many ways, is the narrative bright spot of the film. Unfortunately, it gets very little screen time.
What gets the most screen time, however, is the entirely predictable criminal activities of Beckett, who dives headfirst into a life of crime as a counterfeiter in desperation to pay off his father’s sizable debt to Roman (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a crime boss straight out of a dinner theatre version of “Snatch.” Beckett and his counterfeiting partner, Larry (Jordan Dunn), make some appallingly stupid decisions, such as deciding not to pay off the debt with counterfeit money, because they’re afraid it’ll attract attention, while driving around in a brand new Bentley as members of families who can barely afford groceries. These decisions in the screenplay would have been fine if “Phantom Halo” sported more of a dark comedy tone about bumbling criminals. But since Beckett is set up early on as a levelheaded young man with a good head on his shoulders, it becomes harder to root for him as the convoluted plot tumbles along.
Some sub-plots are left hanging, and plot twists come out of nowhere, one of which involves the sudden appearance of a first edition “Phantom Halo” comic that’s worth $100,000, until the third act conveniently puts all of the characters in the same location for the uninspired bloody finale. The sub-plot about the valuable comic is at least memorable, if not entirely sensical, since it begins with a supposed romantic sequence that ends with a character’s fingertip getting chopped off.
With “Phantom Halo,” Bogdanovich, an actress who’s been playing bit parts since her first uncredited appearance in her father’s “The Last Picture Show,” shows that she has a knack for directing actors and building a visually appealing story. The performances are solid all around. Brodie-Sanger, best known for his role as Jojen Reed in “Game of Thrones,” gives an impressively impassioned performance as a boy who lives and breathes theatrical tragedy. Yet in the end, “Phantom Halo” ends up as a bit of a mess, and while not an unintentional farce, it’s nothing to write a soliloquy about either. [C-]