The film sub-genre of magical realism isn’t present in movies often enough. For those of you who aren’t exactly sure what it is, magical realism is a style of storytelling where a supernatural element is inserted into an otherwise normal environment (see Birdman or Midnight In Paris), like a hybrid of science-fiction and just plain fiction. There’s something very appealing about that combination. In a world almost exactly like our own, we’re give just a slight touch of magic to keep things interesting.
Enough to allow us to see what life would be like if magic actually existed, anyway, yet still real enough to help keep us grounded enough so we’re able to imagine – for a brief moment – that magic like that could actually exist. However, the supernatural element suggested in Above the Shadows isn’t necessarily one you’d want happening in your own life.
At 12 years-old Holly suffers the death of her mother, Victoria (Maria Dizzia), the only person who ever seemed to notice her. As a middle-child, she was often lost in the shuffle. Her older sister was the pretty one and her younger brother was the smart one. Her dad, Paul (Jim Gaffigan), too oblivious to pay any attention to someone as quiet as Holly. But Holly and her mother were kindred spirits. After Victoria’s death, Holly slowly fades into invisibility from the world. Not metaphorically; she literally disappears.
She still exists, only no one can hear or see her, though her father and siblings don’t seem to realize she was ever there to begin with. Fast forward many years and the now-adult Holly (Olivia Thrilby) is still invisible, but has adjusted to everyday life as an invisible. She has an apartment, and even a job as a tabloid photographer, using her circumstance to take pictures of celebrities in compromising scenarios without them realizing she’s in the room. One day, while hunting down a new subject at a nightclub, she’s stopped by a bouncer and gets kicked out. Holly is caught off guard, unable to believe someone can actually see her.
After years with no real human contact, Holly is anxious to go back to talk to this guy. He’s Shayne Blackwell (Alan Ritchson), a former professional MMA fighter who was actually one of Holly’s past tabloid victims. It takes some convincing for Shayne to believe her crazy invisibility story, but eventually he does, leading the two down a path of discovery and how their destinies involve one another. Why is he the only person who can see her? And how can they help each other get their lives back on track?
Above the Shadows doesn’t focus much on Holly’s life immediately following her invisibility and how she had to cope with fading from existence as a young girl. That would be a different movie entirely. Instead, the story deals with someone who’s been invisible for years, long after she’s accepted this devastating reality. The fun part for the audience is figuring out how Holly operates within her space, how she lives, works, eats, and stays entertained.
Made even more enjoyable by a script by Claudia Myers, who also directs, that reveals details slowly, never giving us too much at one time. Though the physics of Holly’s invisibility are a bit foggy, how she navigates her world is brilliantly thought out. Myers explores a lot out of Holly’s situation, but doesn’t necessarily see every major “what if” all the way through. Shayne asks questions, but not really all of the hard-hitting ones most people would. Holly’s never shown playing physical tricks on people, sneaking into highly exclusive events, or even looking herself up to see if she’s truly been erased from existence. But these are just nitpicks, because the film really does give us almost everything we would want from this highly intriguing premise on a personal level.
Perhaps that standard, set early on, made me come to expect every last “t” to be crossed and “i” to be dotted. The ending attempts to give us some answers, while also giving us a few more questions in the process. I didn’t mind this because the questions aren’t headscratchers. If anything, they allow us to contemplate the meaning of the film, which I’ve come to realize is actually really deep.
Like a lot of smaller-budget indie films, Myers’ script isn’t as tidy as it could be. At times we get a manipulative POV in regards to some of the minor characters, and in some instances are told how to feel about them through lazy and rushed storytelling. However, the dialogue between the two leads is very real. Even when the acting isn’t perfect, their character behaviors are nearly spot-on. And that’s arguably more important.
Holly says the worst thing about being invisible is not being a part of anything. You’d think the worst thing would not being loved, but I suppose Holly still feels the love of her mother – the only person she ever really seemed to care about. Holly was a bitter and cynical person long before her mother passed, seeing the worst in everyone else. So being invisible may be more of a blessing than curse for her. Vying for others’ affection is simply taken off the table so she doesn’t have to deal with it. Though after years of being alone, surely even the biggest misanthropist would get a little lonely?
As a tabloid photographer her job entails ruining people’s lives by invading their privacy, but Holly never feels guilty about any of it. At least until the only person who can see her is one of her biggest victims. Her relationship with Shayne not only gives her someone to finally talk to, but connects her to humanity as a whole, forcing her to now care about someone else (and what they think). His ability to see her is a gift – a butterfly on her shoulder – that she doesn’t want to squander. She initially seeks approval from him for selfish gain, but soon realizes that being in this world only has true value if you put others first.
Above the Shadows gives us a fun and satisfying concept that delivers as much as possible within the established confines of this story. Again, this is a movie that almost requires you accept its own limits in order to fully enjoy it, even when they begin to feel like narrative constraints. But that’s fine, especially when you consider that part of what makes magical realism so “magical” is the unanswerable questions that can – and often do – arise from its presence. Given that magical realism is best served when we’re able to still see its connection to our real world, here’s a film that anyone who’s ever felt invisible should relate to.