Grief-fueled romantic fantasies can be tricky for filmmakers not named Wim Wenders. Everyone aspires to make “Wings of Desire” with its stirring immediacy, beautiful imagery and pressing poignancy, but most wind up delivering something closer to its decent but dreary American remake, “City of Angels” — which could also be said for writer-director Claudia Myers’ “Above the Shadows.” This magical-realist fairy tale, about a young woman feeling so isolated and insignificant after a tragic loss that she’s literally invisible to everyone except one other struggling soul, is certainly imaginative and intelligent in its ideas. However, the savvy smarts within don’t quite sustain the running time and, much like its protagonist, the film becomes transparent in its motives and sentimentality.
Holly (played in younger years by Fina Strazza, later by Olivia Thirlby) was extremely close to her mom Victoria (Maria Dizzia) growing up. As a middle child sandwiched in between two siblings who outshined her in brains and beauty, Holly felt insecure, though never unnoticed when Mom was around. Everything changes for the family once Victoria is struck with a terminal illness. Those warm, lovely, sunshine-filled days Holly once knew transition into colder, duller ones. Without Mom focusing light on her forgotten child, Holly begins to fade from the memory of the surviving family members, as well as the rest of the world. She turns invisible, and with no other options afforded her, disappears into the dark recesses of the city.
Holly rises to the challenge, striking out on her own in her teens, adapting to the changed world around her. She discovers how to get by, living in the shadows of the night, taking full advantage of the new opportunities presented to her. Excelling as a photojournalist who exposes celebrities’ dirty laundry for a popular tabloid, she has learned to navigate the nightlife undetected — that is, until she meets down-on-his-luck bouncer Shayne (Alan Ritchson) while out on a job.
Whereas others look right through her, Shayne sees her as a flesh-and-bone person. He’s similarly been discounted by society after a scandal broke — one Holly leaked — that cost Shayne his stellar reputation, his actress girlfriend Juliana (Megan Fox, who adds significant depth to a shallow role) and his career as an MMA fighter. Feeling guilty over her actions, Holly figures out Shayne is her redemption from her purgatory-like curse. But the comeback story she’s spinning for the both of them won’t be easy. They must suffer foreseeable genre tropes an occasionally antithetical formulaic devices in order to achieve catharsis.
Though it lags intermittently, Myers’ feature moves at a fluid pace. The first 30 minutes are snappy despite being heavy on exposition — not just from Thirlby’s perfectly deadpan narration, which delivers the bulk of information, but also from the internet video Holly watches to fill in Shayne’s backstory. The rules of Holly’s world are delivered in an easily digestible manner. It’s intriguing to see how she thrives in spite of her challenges (including simple things like the way she enters buildings unnoticed when people are around), how she communicates with those who can’t see her (via texts!), and how she buys food and necessities. Shayne’s love for mixed martial arts is well-communicated, likened to a game of chess that engages the body as well as the brain, eloquently giving the sport some earned respect. Character stakes are clearly defined and egalitarian in design, as both Holly and Shayne need something from each other. Her role isn’t limited to aiding the man’s arc.
Once she starts finding confidence, however, the situation gets a little sticky. Helping someone outside of herself gives her confidence, but it also brings out her vanity. For someone presented as cunning and intuitive, Holly makes a few dumb decisions, such as assuming Juliana’s mystery date wasn’t going to be Shayne and that she isn’t solely responsible for their breakup. She’s also rather passive about her own healing process for a very long time until Shayne finally calls her out on it, when it functions as the pat, predictable end-of-the-second-act conflict. Without much creative ingenuity involved, it also hits on the stereotypical “you lied to me” moment and a gender-swapped variation on the old “chase to the airport” romantic movie cliché. Plus, the metaphysical reason why Holly’s life was altered shoulders her with responsibilities and expectations to which no one who is grieving — especially those in the tender teenage years — should ever be held accountable.
While the narrative falters, Myers’ subtle aesthetics don’t go unappreciated. Her transitions mirror the duo’s mindsets. The city’s daylight hours are shown perpetually shrouded in gray, overcast skies when the characters are struggling through life. Cinematographer Eric Robbins also utilizes a cool-toned color palette evocative of the pair’s psyches. Once romance enters the picture, so does the sunlight, peeking through the cloud cover. Myers’ use of canted angles during the pair’s moonlight-drenched make-out session reflects the protagonist’s point-of-view being thrown off-kilter. She and Robbins also photograph press conferences and fights differently from the crowded and flatly-lit way audiences so often see them, making these sequences feel intimate. The tone may not be entirely original, but it’s among this melancholy indie’s strengths.