Welcome To Sundance: Jamie Marks Is Dead

Director Carter Smith employs the plot of Christopher Barzak’s 2007 novel “One For Sorrow” in his latest feature film Jamie Marks Is Dead. Smith upturns the traditional bildungsroman into a darker and more poetic sphere as we follow the sinking adolescent world of Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan), haunted by the corporeal ghost of his loner classmate Jamie.

Jamie’s body is found riverside beneath a bridge in a bleak small town by Gracie (Morgan Saylor) as she is collecting rocks. Via flashback, we learn that Jamie Marks (Noah Silver) was the epitomized outcast, with a pale demeanor, hiding from the torments of his cross-country teammates in the bathroom stall. Adam, also a teammate, watches from afar, with what seems to be empathy. Even after Jamie’s death becomes known at school, he continues to be posthumously mocked. Affected by how he once was a bystander to Jamie’s mockery, we watch as Adam studies Jamie’s torn-out yearbook photo; Adam’s face is on the reverse side, illuminated by lamp light and becoming one with the visage of Jamie.

Gracie secludes herself to the riverbank where she discovered Jamie’s corpse, lighting Dia De Los Muertos-inspired candles and incense. It is here that she and Adam connect. Their bond germinates out of mutual obsession with Jamie, liters of vodka and fumbling sexual encounters. Jamie begins to haunt them both, appearing in closets and backyards. His wet and unclothed body is blue with cold, his eyeglasses are cracked, and he shivers for companionship.

Liv Tyler and Judy Greer emerge in roles as secondary characters, respectively playing Adam’s mother and the woman who paralyzed her in a car accident. The premiere audience responded to their characters as dry relief. Their banter only contributes to Adam’s ever-isolated position of adolescence. He begins to welcome Jamie’s company more readily, and as a result, the two fall into a fleeting world that is neither ghost nor reality.

Carter Smith subverts the traditional haunted film in his depiction of Jamie as a physical body. Choosing not to implement visual effects keeps the drama between Jamie and Adam immediate and intimate. As their relationship unfolds, the two are caught between worlds–Jamie not fully disintegrated in form and Adam not fully present as a human. Gracie becomes frustrated with Adam’s absence and his attempt to occupy two incompatible worlds.

This isn’t the first time Smith has delved into the character of the disturbed, small-town adolescent–his short drama Bugcrush won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2006. A highly reputable fashion photographer, Smith’s eye for framing was inescapable on screen. A shot as simple as a car backing out of the driveway becomes haunting; from 50 feet away the camera sit as the car slowly enters on the right, rolling along the bottom of the screen and exiting on the left. Jamie’s ghost is caught in reflections of windows and mirrors, many details that first-time viewers may initially miss.

Jamie and Adam become two sides of the same coin, exemplified cinematically as the two lie next to each other; the left side of Jamie’s face and the right side of Adam’s become a single countenance. Their relationship operates on a dichotomy of life and decay. We watch over the course of the film as Adam weakens and Jamie gains vitality. Adam breathes words to Jamie to give him life, a ritual that serves as a spiritual embrace.

“To Jamie, who’d never had friends before, it felt like a drug hitting him to feel something,” Noah Silver says of his character receiving words from Adam. Silver reflects upon the world between life and death that his character inhabits, and adds, “Maybe he was stuck there because he slipped.”

Jamie Marks Is Dead occupies an intriguing genre of drama that traces the underlying purposes and imbalances in relationships. The film swallows its audiences into a symbol-laden, dark romance, made relatable by perilous adolescent identity quests.

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