Jamie Marks Is Dead: Review – Sundance 2014

After winning the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2006, there was no doubt that writer/director Carter Smith would return to Sundance. That expectation was fulfilled at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival with his latest feature Jamie Marks Is Dead, adapted for the screen by Smith from Christopher Barzak’s indelible novel.

In a small wintery town that has surely seen better days, a teenage girl Gracie (Morgan Saylor – Homeland) finds the dead frozen body of Jamie Marks by the river. Jamie was a boy that nobody really knew. He had no friends, and his only interaction was with the constant barrage of bullying he received at school. Unfortunately, whether it was suicide or murder, Jamie Marks was certainly a casualty of other people’s cruelty.

But when Adam (Cameron Monaghan – Shameless), the local high school’s cross-country and track star, sees the ghost of Jamie (Noah Silver – The Borgias) standing in the tree line outside Gracie’s window, Adam is surprisingly more intrigued than fearful. Gracie is quick to warn Adam not to follow his curiosity, but Adam ignores her warning and begins to interact with Jamie’s ghost. Adam’s goal is simple: he wants to help Jamie by providing companionship and love, something Adam believes Jamie never received. And Jamie just wants a friend, even if he doesn’t know how to be one himself. But their budding friendship quickly morphs into a deep phantasmagorical connection, ultimately trapping Adam between the world of the living and the dead. The question is: Will Jamie ever be able to let go?

Seeing Jamie Marks Is Dead was an interesting experience, and definitely one of those films that I have no doubt will stay with me for a long time. Yet despite a profusion of incredibly positive elements – tremendous performances, breathtaking cinematography, crafted symbolism, and a haunting score – I do have one contention with the film. And I can sum it up in one word: Want.

What does Adam want? What is his goal? His objective? Intellectually, it is easy to understand that his initial objective is to try to help Jamie, and once he is too far down the rabbit hole of the world of the dead, that he wants out. It all makes sense. The problem is that I didn’t buy it.

Conversely, Jamie’s want is believable. He had never had any friends. He was abused and ridiculed his entire life. And before he is able to move on to the afterworld, he wants a real friendship – he needs a deep connection. That’s why he lingers. That’s why he reaches out to Adam.

But Adam? We do get a brief flashback of Adam watching Jamie being brutally bullied and humiliated in school, yet we only get a glimpse of this, and all Adam has the strength to do is walk away. And then Jamie is dead. So the question is, does Adam hang out with Jamie’s ghost (who is incredibly creepy by the way, and at times even terrifying – I jumped in my seat at least half a dozen times), because Adam feels guilty for not defending Jamie when he was alive? I just don’t know. And Jamie’s ghost is way too scary for Adam not to be frightened. So even though I would agree that almost every aspect of Jamie Marks Is Dead is filmmaking at its finest, the simple fact that I didn’t believe Adam would ever befriend Jamie’s ghost in the first place created a story disconnect.

Jamie Marks Is Dead is definitely worth seeing; you just have to accept that Adam’s want is credible.