Apart from also dealing with the supernatural, Carter Smith’s second feature has virtually no overlap with his 2008 gore-horror success “The Ruins.” Drawn from Christopher Barzak’s novel “One for Sorrow,” “Jamie Marks Is Dead” is a somber fantastical drama in which the titular bullied teen returns to haunt — or rather beg help from — select fellow high schoolers. The potentially ludicrous story is handled artfully enough here to cast an eerie but not off-putting spell throughout, though the ultimate point is more than a tad murky, and the desired poignancy doesn’t fully come across. Pic will definitely stir critical and buyer interest while repping a tough commercial sell.
In a small upstate New York town, Gracie (Morgan Saylor) is scavenging rocks for her collection under a river bridge when she discovers the corpse of Jamie Marks (Noah Silver), a misfit classmate poorly treated or ignored by all. Another person affected by the death (which officials investigate as a possible homicide or suicide) is track star Adam (Cameron Monaghan), who witnessed teammates cruelly bullying the boy but didn’t intervene.
When the two youths cross paths, Jamie discovers that Gracie has been getting disturbing visits by Jamie’s ghost — still naked and bruised, hovering at the edge of the woods outside her home. She urges Adam not to engage with the specter, which she’s obviously afraid of. But soon Jamie is turning up at his house, too — lurking in the bedroom closet, even — and a curious Adam actually befriends the dead boy he feels a guilty sympathy toward.
Their relationship is practically normal compared with the abrupt emotional shifts Gracie exercises toward Adam as her new kinda-sorta boyfriend, let alone what he has to deal with at home. There, his single mother (Liv Tyler) copes rather perversely with having been paralyzed in a car accident, hanging out with the alcoholic driver (Judy Greer) who hit her; her other son, Aaron (Ryan Munzert), is a certifiable jerk and one lousy big brother.
When that environment gets too stifling, Adam decides to go away for a few days, accepting Jamie’s offer to stay at an abandoned local farm — abandoned save for Frances (Madisen Beaty), a hostile spirit seemingly stuck in her birthplace ever since she killed abusive parents, then herself. (While her dress suggests that might have happened as long as a century ago, her potty mouth is strangely up-to-the-minute.) After Adam does something rash in response to her curses, she shows up at his house to terrorize him in the film’s most horror-angled sequence. Afterward, it begins to look like Adam might start seeing a lot of dead people, an escalation Gracie says is just what she tried to warn him against.
Eventually tinged with a one-sided romantic longing, the strange friendship between Adam and Jamie seems intended to accomplish something on the latter’s behalf. But what? Revenge isn’t on the agenda, and it’s never remotely clear why some people stick around after death while others don’t. We get that Jamie was a classic bullying victim, but that’s all we learn about him. Nor are Adam and Gracie much better fleshed out in Smith’s screenplay adaptation — why don’t they seem to have any friends, either? These holes aren’t any fault of the actors, who fill out their sketchily conceived characters with nuanced skill.
The result is a movie much stronger on atmosphere and intrigue than on substance, leaving a somewhat frustrating narrative aftertaste. Still, for most of the running time at least, the offbeat premise and mood will hold the attention of those not automatically irritated by story’s failure to enter straight thriller or horror terrain. Darren Lew’s widescreen compositions and other visual design contributions extend the wintry rural setting’s silent, purgatorial feel to both interior and exterior scenes. Francois-Eudes Chanfrault’s score uses drone and ambient sounds to create a general sense of unease.