PARK CITY - One of the more intriguing aspects of the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival is just how unconventional it has been. Dramedies and films with slight sci-fi elements have been a mainstay of the festival's premier category, but straight comedies, zombies and supernatural horror? Well, that's something very new to the mix. One picture that mixes serious drama and supernatural elements in this year's dramatic competition premiered Sunday night, "Jamie Marks is Dead."
Adapted from Christopher Barzak's novel "One for Sorrow," "Jamie Marks" begins with Gracie ("Homeland's" Morgan Saylor) discovering the dead body of the title character by the side of a creek. The film then transitions its POV to Adam ("Shameless'" Cameron Monaghan), a star track athlete who witnessed Marks being bullied by other students before his death. With rumors swirling that Marks may have been murdered, Adam's curiosity gets the better of him and he heads to the creek where he finds Gracie contributing to a makeshift memorial. Adam is clearly infatuated by the more confident and take-charge Gracie. Eventually, he takes her up on her offer to show him her -- no joke -- rock collection back home with her parents conveniently out of town. When the lights surprisingly go off right before their inevitable first kiss, Gracie starts acting strange. Looking out the window, Adam understands why. There, a short distance away, is some incarnation of Jamie Marks ("The Borgia's" Noah Silver) starring back at them. Adam can see Jamie, Jamie knows Adam can see him. And at this point, something akin to an emotional haunting begins to take place.
Ignoring Gracie's advice, Adam essentially becomes friends with this incarnation of Jamie. Why is not entirely clear. Is Adam just empathetic to Jamie's status as a creature caught between two worlds? Despite his success in school, does Adam feel more alone than his family or friends think? Was he secretly attracted to Jamie before his death? All possible reasons why and one of the best things about Carter Smith's direction and screenplay is he leaves much of it to audience interpretation.
Smith, a well-known fashion photographer who also took home the short filmmaking award at Sundance in 2006 and directed the commercial horror film "The Ruins," is as much responsible for the film's success as its shortcomings. He does a superb job balancing the serious drama with the increasingly more dangerous supernatural elements. You immediately believe this conceit that a ghost in tangible form (you can touch and feel him) would work in this very realistic world. Smith also creates some incredibly scary and tension-filled scenes, with no CGI, that absolutely convey what a dangerous situation Adam has gotten himself into.
The film is also beautifully shot by Darren Lew and Smith made a wonderful choice in composer François-Eudes Chanfrault, who provides a memorable score. Where Smith has the most trouble is justifying some of the characters' actions in the context of his script. Because of that specifically, the film's emotional climax isn't as touching as it could have been. And that leads to a somewhat disappointing feeling as you walk out of the theater.
As for the cast, Monaghan is very good (he can seemingly cry on cue), you just wish Smith had made his character less stoic at times. That decisive contrast to Silver's emotionally unstable Jamie makes it hard to believe the relationship between the two lasts as long as it does. Unfortunately, the one weak link is Saylor. Gracie is an eccentric teenager, but Saylor plays her pretty one-note throughout the entire picture. Besides the fact that Adam's pickings in his small town may be slim, why would he be infatuated with her? Saylor doesn't give enough color to Gracie to justify their mutual attraction.
Liv Taylor and Judy Greer have minor roles as Adam's mom and her new best friend respectively, but their inclusion isn't that important to the film's main storyline. They do deliver as much as Taylor and Greer always do, however.
The most impressive part about "Jamie Marks" is how it blurs lines between sexuality, love and friendship in an increasingly supernatural context. Does Adam fall for Jamie? Is he really bi? Is he really gay? That inevitable discussion may be the one thing Smith and his collaborators can really hang their hats on.
As for its chances of being acquired, "Jamie Marks" is somewhat of a tough sell. The leads are really not bankable enough on their own and is it really supernatural enough to sell as a horror film? Probably not. The film's best prospects are likely on the art house circuit and VOD.