Movie Review: Jamie Marks Is Dead
By Hans Pedersen - Aug. 28, 2014
The ghoulish premise of this supernatural tale is that Jamie Marks was so lonely when he was alive, that only as a disembodied spirit does he have the chance to forge high school friendships. Based on the debut novel by Christopher Barzak, One for the Sorrow, this story dwells on Jamie’s purgatorial journey.
Jamie (played by Noah Silver) was bullied by fellow students, and as a ghost, he begins appearing to Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan), a young track runner who barely knew him. While Adam never bullied Jamie, he certainly runs with that crowd.
We’re introduced to Jamie only in his purgatorial state, after his death, so his lonely specter exudes a dream-like quality. And notably, he doesn’t haunt his family; instead, he haunts Adam.
Adam also seems drawn to Jamie, but not as strongly. Instead he warms up to a girl named Gracie, who’s the first person to find the teen’s body in the woods. In a brilliant stroke of casting, Morgan Saylor, who plays a sullen teen on Homeland, plays the role of the brooding girl Gracie.
But Adam remains the object of Jamie’s affection, and the boy continually haunts him, manifesting in his bedroom clad only in underwear. The gay themes are so subtle you may be left wondering whether or not this is a gay teen ghost story. Their affection might be considered brotherly, yet this movie seems like more than a bromance.
Themes of same-sex attraction may be subtle, but the movie’s unmistakably homoerotic. Jamie seems to have a boy crush on the track runner, feeling drawn to him in some inexplicable way. In visual terms, the two boys, Jamie and Adam, almost seems like flip sides of the same person, suggesting their roles could be reversed.
A similar mirroring effect shrouds the story of Adam’s mom, Linda (Liv Tyler), who we learn is recovering from a car accident. She meets up with the woman who’s responsible for the crash, Lucy (Judy Greer). The woman who was behind the wheel expresses appropriate guilt and remorse, and soon the victim and her assailant seem to bond. Every time Adam comes home from school, in fact, Judy is always there. Like Jamie Marks himself, she has apparently moved in – both tormentor and victim are now friends.
The film’s director Carter Smith began his career as a fashion photographer, so he has a powerful grasp on the visual in this spooky thriller. Sparsely lit shots produce a rich tapestry in the dark forests and rooms that Jamie haunts. Many of the shots are visually intriguing, including Gracie’s room, which is lined with rocks that are lit with a cool blue luminescent glow.
Ultimately, the trio becomes entangled with the ghost of a young murderer. And, while the characters feel fully fleshed out, in the end we don’t see a lot of transformation on the part of Adam or Gracie.
We never really learn any of the disparaging, hurtful words that were hurled toward Jamie, but that may be the point: The story doesn’t delve into the act of bullying so much as it dwells in its misery, inducing after-effects.
Beyond the shadows, the film might benefit from a stronger resolution, but such quibbles may lie with the source material. All said and done, Smith has crafted a chilling yarn that avoids clichés and remains visually inventive.
Effectively spooky and sad, this ghost story is also a coming-of-age tale that manages to defy classification.
Q & A with Carter Smith and Noah Silver
The day after the movie premiered at the Sundance Film festival, Smith and Silver (from the FX series Tyrant) sat down for an interview.
“At the end of the day I think it’s about loneliness and connection and how hard it can be whether you’re alive or dead, or popular or not popular, or gay or straight, it’s sort of universal,” Smith said, adding that
From the first time he read the project three years ago, Silver says his interest was immediately sparked.
“Already in that first version I was in love with these characters and the relationships they were building,” Silver said, “and all the layers you could play with, and seeing how they connected [to] and disconnected from one another.”
Smith added that the strong characters in the book spurred him to adapt the story into a film Christopher’s beautiful writing, and the characters he created, felt very real and very fresh and very true, he said.
There’s also a delicate balance involved in launching such an unusual thriller as this, Smith points out, especially one that cannot be pigeonholed into any one genre.
“It isn’t a film that fits easily into any neat, tidy boxes,” he said. “It’s a love story, it’s a ghost story, it’s a scary story it’s a lot of different things.”
What’s most curious about the movie is the homoerotic element, which are hard to deny as the ghost of Jamie wanders around in his underwear, lost in his ethereal purgatory, and keeps appearing in Adam’s bedroom.
“A gay audience is going to see it in one way, and think about the story in a way that they can relate to,” Carter said. “Which is completely different from how another audience might tap into the story, and that’s been one of the interesting things, hearing how different groups or what different people latch onto.”
Indeed “Jamie Marks Is Dead” is a story about teenagers whose sexuality is not clearly defined, and that’s intentional.
“I think that goes along with how young people don’t necessarily feel the need to define themselves how they did ten or twenty years ago,” Smith said.
For Silver, who also appeared in TV’s The Borgias, it was the first time he worked with a cast his own age, making it a unique experience for him.
Silver is a college-aged actor, and acknowledges he was bullied to some extent back when he was younger, but never in the way Jamie was.
“It’s not being tortured, it’s other people knowing that you’re being tortured that’s very powerful,” he said. "I was unbelievably pleased, and touched, to have been part of something like that, and started bawling in certain moments. “It was a very powerful moment for me and, I think, for all of us.”
Silver says he’s now realizing just how the director managed to skillfully bring all the parts together in a whole.
“[H]e knew it would all fit together,” Silver said, “I think he aligned our visions and told us what we should feel and when we came together it all fit.”
Smith says Adam’s guilt over it all is also a powerful emotion that draws him toward Jamie in a “certain” kind of love.
“He’s certainly getting something from Adam that he’s never gotten from anybody else before, attention and affection, companionship and friendship,” Smith said. “It’s not romantic love, I don’t think, but it’s such a gratifying sense of receiving something.”
Silver elaborates on his character’s motives.
“Because [Jamie has] never experienced anything like that or felt a connection, the slightest affection is so powerful to him and he just grabs onto that and can’t let go because it’s the only thing he has keeping him attached … to the living world,” Silver explained.
Seeing the movie in front of crowds at the Sundance Film Festival was ultimately a treat for the creative team.
“You spend so many hundreds of thousands of hours alone with this thing,” Smith said. “So to finally be in a room with an audience and see it through their eyes for the first time is so exciting.”
When all said and done, the director is hoping audiences will appreciate the movie.
“I want the film to touch an audience and take them on an emotional ride where they see truth in the story,” Smith said.
Hans Pedersen is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.