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Sundance Review: ‘Jamie Marks is Dead’ is a Poetic but Flawed Meditation on Human Connection

Sundance Review: 'Jamie Marks is Dead' is a Poetic but Flawed Meditation on Human Connection

Carter Smith’s “Jamie Marks is Dead” is a spooky rendition of teenage passion and shame. It has requisite angst and melodrama, but they’re guided by the film’s immersive atmosphere and sense of place. It’s a gothic romance—a sort of coming out, bullying story that projects onto its world the moods and emotions of its characters.

The day after the body of Jamie Marks (Noah Silver) is found on a creek bed, a throwaway female high school student brings up the death in class in search of solace. The teacher is patient but has little sympathy. In a series of questions falling on the class , he asks: Who was he to you? Student Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan) stares through the silence at Jamie’s empty desk.
After school, Adam visits the creek bed. Gracie Highsmith (Morgan Saylor), who found the body, is already there, lighting incense and arranging flowers. From the start, she’s a little alluring but noticably odd—and not just because she collects rocks. Adam’s confusion is all over his face. He doesn’t have a footing on why he’s intrigued. We’re as unsure as he is. But Gracie seems comfortable at the “grave” and with the circumstances that have incited her and Adam’s introduction. She invites him back to her empty house, serves up vodka in quart mugs, and makes not just the first move but all of them.

Her room, lit in sapphire candescence, is furnished with a chair that resembles a dream catcher. It’s from her window we and Adam see Jamie’s ghost. Gracie warns Adam against acknowledging the specter, but Adam can’t help it. He’s drawn to Jamie, though it’s not always clear why—but Adam does harbor some guilt for having never intervened when seeing Jamie bullied. He wants companionship (and something more ambiguous), which he never received in life. Adam desires an escape from a troubled home. Jamie promises to do him one better: He can offer Adam a new world.

Adapted from Christopher Barzack’s young-adult novel “One for Sorrow,” the script for “Jamie Marks Is Dead” sheds some of the source material’s girth, but it ends up feeling somewhat erratic. Adam’s mother, Linda (Liv Tyler), is about as inconsequential to her sons’ behavior as she is to the story. She’s paralyzed in a car accident early in the movie, but she contributes more to the film’s mood than the narrative momentum. Gracie’s given scarcely more development. Saylor’s talent for intuition and compassion shows well in her performance, but the opportunities are scarce for her to flesh out why Gracie’s so drawn to Adam and so seemingly knowledgeable about Jamie. It’s a shame the script doesn’t bring more to the table for either actress. Despite their admirable turns, the film loses credibility and energy as soon as their characters show up.

Smith has added resonant craft to weaker scripts before (i.e., “Ruins'”). Here, his actors so often seem tragic because he lights them as if they were all supernatural figures. In the terribly unsettling scene in which Jamie first appears in Adam’s closet, the blankness of the bedroom seems to come to a peak in the doorway, Jamie’s bluish complexion casting an unwanted glow that, from that point forward, Adam will rarely be without. Silver is perfectly cast, syphoning the shadows for all their uneasiness and soft definition. Monaghan’s Adam is ever curious but rarely confident. Scenes and settings, day or night, suggest unseen figures lurking just outside the frame, until the film begins to evoke in us a suspicion: Is this a thing of Smith’s or Adam’s imagination?

The latter is an immediate impossibility, but the suspicion alone alters how we respond to the film. Smith layers his images—actors blocking actors, shots like Adam sitting in bed near, in the other half of the frame, a mirror reflecting Jamie. When Adam speaks to or around his shame, Smith covers him with Jamie. As the pair grows closer, and Jamie’s dependence on Adam becomes more intimate,  his once-haggard posture and deliberate mannerisms begin to resemble Adam’s. The transfiguration is at once sweet and sinister.

A compelling meditation on the repercussions of shame and the supernatural undertones of the human spirit, “Jamie Marks Is Dead” also has its fair share of stumbles. Still, Smith’s voice is fine-tuned, enlivening everything on screen with romance and melancholy. There’s nothing more effective than a scene in which a hellish ghost rips through Adam’s bedroom door. In this movie, the ghosts are unstoppable.

Criticwire Grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? A moody teen movie with a little-known cast, the movie’s theatrical prospects are limited, though widespread festival play seems fairly likely ahead of a respectable VOD deal.

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