Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, credited only as “M” and “C”, lie in each other’s arms on a couch just big enough for the both of them. When she was little, M says, her family moved a lot and, in attempt to cope with the constant upheaval, she wrote notes, folded them up, and hid them throughout the homes before leaving. “They were just things I wanted to remember,” she says, “so if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.”

The difficult choice between remembering and forgetting, between holding onto and letting go of the people and places we’ve cared for, underscores A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s gentle, meandering and wholly engaging meditation on love, time, and the impermanence of human gestures. The film reunites Lowery with Affleck and Mara, who led his critically respected Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2011). A Ghost Story’s production proceeded quietly in the wake of Pete’s Dragon (2016), Lowery’s recent foray into big-budget, more mainstream fare, and is a return to his softer indie touch. Its 87 minutes, extrapolated from a sparse 30-page script, trace the afterlife of a recently deceased man’s ghost (Affleck) as he lingers around the world and the grieving of the lover (Mara) that he left behind.

Similar storylines abound, but the film echoes 1990’s Ghost only in its skeletal premise, which Lowery uses more as a springboard for poetic discussion than as a unique idea. This is best exemplified by Affleck’s spectral appearance as a classic, white-sheeted ghost. That decision, and the concept as a whole, reflects the filmmaker’s deliberate embrace of simple tropes and narrative minimalism to give the film the breathing room it needs to address deeper questions.

After a brief introduction to the couple’s happy but flawed relationship, Affleck dies unassumingly in a car accident that we witness only in aftermath. Soon after, Mara stands over her lover’s dead body in a hospital. She cries and leaves, which prompts Affleck to rise- still covered by the morgue’s white sheet- and wander through the hospital, into the world, and back home. There he remains, if only spatially, as the story runs forward and backward through time.

Incidentally, it really was Affleck under the sheet. Lowery intended for the ghost to have a more nuanced performance, but upon developing the costume with designer Annell Brodeur, they found that there was very little the actor could do beyond watching, turning, and walking in a measured, melancholy way. This lends itself well, though, to a film that lets the viewers do their own emotional work. When Mara eats an entire pie in one tear-filled sitting, we share the ghost’s passivity. 

This sense of distance might trouble some audiences, as will the film’s minimal character development. The ghost’s lack of motion imbues his static observations with a certain numbness, and what we see of Mara and Affleck’s relationship early on isn’t enough to make the reasons why we should care about them, nor the ghost’s inability to leave his home behind, truly palpable. This shying away from sentimentality and standard character development won’t be for everyone. There are no pottery-making scenes, and there’s no “Unchained Melody”.

But there is power, in the restrained unraveling of the central relationship and its subtle expressions of love. In lieu of pottery, we watch Mara and Affleck sleepily kiss each other in the middle of the night, the way real couples might. Lowery doesn’t open the emotional floodgates, but he does crack a door. 

Eventually, we do get a better idea of the couple’s central conflict. Mara wanted to move out of their house, and Affleck wanted to stay. Soon enough after Affleck’s death, Mara does leave, but not before sliding a note in a crack in a wall and painting it over. The ghost is left to watch how time treats the place, through its near and distant future and its early beginnings. Lowery could have envisioned any number of arbitrary temporal scenarios, so the ghost remains the only constant. The note that Mara left anchors his abstract yearning for home and, on-and-off, he returns to try and uncover it.

Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shot the film in the full-screen 4:3 aspect ratio, which, embellished with faded borders and Palermo’s soft colors, generates the nostalgic feel of home movies. The experience is more like that of looking through the imperfect windowpanes of an old home than watching a movie screen.

Frequent long takes force us to sit with the characters, their pain, and their seemingly mundane moments, and Mara and Affleck’s subdued performances echo more than they shake. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that such a series of slow, meandering scenes never feels boring. Easing through time, each shift is unexpected. The film credits Primer director Shane Carruth (no stranger to time travel) with editorial assistance, and Lowery notes that having Carruth’s eyes on the dailies provided a wealth of fresh ideas. 

The rich orchestral swells of Daniel Hart’s score complement the quiet nature of the ghost’s journey. Affleck’s character is a musician, and one of his songs (“I Get Overwhelmed,” provided by Hart’s band, Dark Rooms), injects a refreshing interlude and a music-video-esque moment of reflection for Mara.

Purposeful lines only occasionally punctuate the silent passage of time, most notably in the form of a monologue delivered by a man at a party held by some of the home’s future tenants. Will Oldham (star of Lowery’s acclaimed 2011 short, Pioneer), sits at a table of thirty-to-forty-somethings, drinking and smoking and waxing philosophic about humanity’s relationship with time and how everything we know and do will one day disappear. While the lines are insightful, their delivery in the guise of a hyperbolic rant teeters on the edge of being too “on the nose”, like a vehicle just for the film’s lone stab at overt thematic exposition. Though Oldham’s human conviction offers a welcome break from Affleck’s ghostliness, his presence lacks the grace so carefully layered throughout the rest of the narrative.

When the ghost first rises in the morgue and wanders through the hospital, a glowing doorway appears on a wall and then fades away, one of the movie’s most acute supernatural flares. It’s tempting to wonder what exists beyond the glow, but Lowery is unconcerned. The ghost turns back to his home and, after all, the door isn’t meant for the audience. The living don’t get to process the world through the prism of eternity. We have to remember and forget, to hold on, and leave behind.

Affleck’s character wrote a song and Mara’s left a note. Lowery made a movie, and it will be a shame it if remains in the background of this year’s slew of notable films. The title deliberately stamps it into the lexicon of cinematic ghost stories, but in that genre it is unlike most. Moving beyond scares and nostalgic, sentimental romance, its emotional nuance is what haunts —and that is something to be admired. Whether or not it gains traction, though, is irrelevant in the face of a world that will one day be consumed by its own sun, as Oldham’s character bluntly concludes. A Ghost Story will nonetheless remain, in its own way, like a note left behind in an old house, meant for those to whom it may provide a modicum of closure before we all fade to black.