You could say that We Have a Ghost is, for all intents and purposes, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but with, well, a ghost. And you would be right, as they follow the same essential tracks. But writer/director Christopher Landon – working from a short story by Geoff Manaugh – gives us a wondrous ride with heartfelt performances and gobs of fun as two beings on opposite sides of life band together to set things right.
Defying the formula is the film’s theme of being seen – truly getting to know someone past what we see, or what we want to see. To most people, Ernest (David Barbour) is a bona fide spirit, haunting a Louisiana house and its new tenants. When a video of him goes viral, Landon takes the opportunity to spoof our social media-driven mob mentality, finding one thing or another to gripe about or celebrate. But in taking the time to unravel the mystery surrounding his demise, he moves past being Ernest (it’s the name on his shirt, but is it his real name?) and becomes someone with a past and a family, someone who was missed and deserves closure.
Likewise, high schooler Kevin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) doesn’t quite fit in with his family or at school, sinking himself into his music and away from connecting with anyone. His father Frank (Anthony Mackie) kind of bullies him into butching up and toeing his line, hiding his own self-esteem problems that manifest in terse conversations that sadly cement that Kevin isn’t the son he hoped he’d become. Kevin’s taste in music, his lack of wanting to turn Ernest into a sideshow, and his perceived lack of a spine – these are all things Frank rides Kevin about before he’s forced to explain himself to his father. And when he does, Kevin’s usually shown to be the smartest one in the room.
Their fraught relationship is why Kevin finds himself more at home with the silent Ernest, who can barely mouth the words he wishes people could hear. Moments between them turn into adventures, each accepting of the other without forcing the friendship to be something it isn’t. Of course, being an opportunist (shaded by dialogue referring to his past chasing a quick buck), Frank turns Ernest into a media spectacle, enjoying the attention and the YouTube income but not really seeing the real opportunity at hand: appreciating this experience with Kevin and making something more meaningful out of their circumstance.
When disgraced Federal agent Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro) gets wind of this, she seizes the chance to reopen a long-mothballed, X-Files-esque paranormal investigation division and won’t stop until she has Ernest in custody. She’s the Peter Coyote-as-Keys analog from E.T., almost right down to the “I’ve been waiting my whole life for you” line. Again, it’s a case of her moving past her own baggage to see what should be done, not just furthering her own program.
It’s a high-flying family comedy that shines with terrific performances, from our leads to the cameos (nice to see you, Faith Ford!). Landon knows just how to nudge Jahi Winston gently out of Kevin’s timid beginnings and into being more of a sure, confident teen, and Winston responds by creating a character we want to get behind and root for every step of the way. Coming to Kevin’s aid is neighbor Joy, played gamely by Isabella Russo, who fashions Joy as a punky inspiration for Kevin to stand up for himself and makes us smile by being the cute voice of reason and comedy.
But it’s David Harbour who has a heavy lift here, having to communicate without speaking or even so much as using words. His mastery of his silent performance through looks and posture is a marvel, evoking the best of physical comedy greats like Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. In his more quiet, subdued moments, he makes us hang on every shrug and gesture as we ferret out the story behind his earthbound imprisonment. Winston and Harbour lead a cast of willing and dedicated actors who give this film their all, and they all coalesce into a wonderful ensemble who ably support each other with alternate turns of grace and freneticism.
We Have a Ghost is a fantastic time, all at once acknowledging its formula while straying outside the lines to become its own thing. It’s not rocket science, nor is it groundbreaking; it’s just meant to be a fun movie that pulls at your heartstrings and gives you a reason to smile. Right from the beginning, we know exactly what we’re in for, but Christopher Landon has a way of making even the tried-and-true fresh again, putting his unique spin on the tropes we’ve come to know and love. And he even finds a way to leave the door open for repeat visits, a notion that seems rather welcome, considering the goodwill and lovely intentions that come through every character and every frame.
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