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Director David Lowery.

Kris Dewitte/A24

When the filmmaker David Lowery is back in Wisconsin, he will drive to the home where he grew up, park the car and stare at the house, wishing he could walk through its front door.

When he moves, the 36-year-old, who now calls Texas home, will lug boxes of childhood mementos along with him, even though he knows that when he is gone they will be meaningless to whoever is there to clear it away.

"I'm sentimental to a fault," Lowery said this week in an interview to promote his new film, A Ghost Story, a hit at Sundance that stars Casey Affleck as a man who dies and returns to his suburban home to watch over his bereft wife, played by Rooney Mara. A profoundly moving meditation on loss and the need to feel significant in the face of time's limitlessness, it isn't a horror movie, but it most certainly is haunting.

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"The idea that all we have is everything that's come before us, and we are the accumulated weight of our own personal histories is a beautiful concept. And yet it also leaves you asking, is that all there is? Is that all that defines us? Is that all we have? And somewhere in the asking of this question is this movie," Lowery said.

With the success he has so far enjoyed, including Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a critically well-received feature film that also starred Affleck and Mara, from 2013, and last summer's big-budget Disney remake Pete's Dragon, you wouldn't expect Lowery to be plagued by despair. But that is the spectre overhanging his life that led him to write A Ghost Story.

"I don't like being pessimistic. I don't like living my life with a nihilistic mindset. So I wanted to figure out a way to engage with this fatalism that I was experiencing and find a way to find hope and positivity within it," he said.

As is fitting for a sentimentalist, he seized upon a classic image from childhood – a ghost in a white bed sheet.

"I have nostalgic ties to it because I loved Halloween. Growing up, it was my favourite holiday. It still is my favourite holiday. I took Halloween too seriously to dress up in a costume like that, but my brother did," Lowery said.

The ghost isn't only an image from his favourite holiday, but also one from his beginnings as a movie maker.

"The very first film I ever made, when I was seven years old, when I got my hands on a camcorder, was a remake of Poltergeist, which I hadn't seen yet because my parents wouldn't allow me to," Lowery said. "But I made my own version of it and it starred my brother in a bed sheet."

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Pop culture is filled with the innocent image of children in ghost costumes, of course. Lowery makes the image sadder than you have probably ever seen, by taking all those sweet associations and imbuing them with loneliness and despair.

"I've always enjoyed seeing symbols like that in unexpected contexts," Lowery says. "It creates a different kind of phantom."

A Ghost Story is certainly a different kind of ghost story. It has elements of classic horror films, with Affleck's silent ghost terrorizing a family with young children. It has moments of strange humour; too strange and important for the story for me to ruin them for you. There is also a journey back through time and into the future.

And while many movies about hauntings rely on quick cuts and fast edits to scare audiences, A Ghost Story features multiple long takes that are uncomfortable if not borderline interminable, including a five-minute, uninterrupted shot of Mara's character eating an entire pie dropped off by an acquaintance following her husband's death.

The scene prompts confusion, rage, sympathy or admiration for its artistic courage, depending on who you ask. Lowery knows it's bound to become a meme, if it hasn't already. He knows audiences will have heard of the scene before they see the film and will be expecting it. But he hopes that once they've settled into their seats, the experience of watching it will transcend the obsessive chatter it has so far provoked.

"There's nothing sensational about it. It is a very mundane scene that lasts for an uncomfortable period of time," Lowery said. "It's an important scene. It demands a lot. It asks a lot of the audience and I think it gives a lot back if you're willing to engage with it."

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The same can be said for the movie itself.

Despite the melancholy that floats through it like mist in a graveyard, A Ghost Story is ultimately a hopeful film, said Lowery, who is working on an adaptation of Peter Pan, another classic of childhood nostalgia.

"Even more than hope, it provides me with a great deal of comfort," he said. He only realized this when he watched the finished cut of the film before its premiere at Sundance.

"The last frame came up on screen and I found myself at peace in a way I had not expected."

A Ghost Story opens July 21 in Toronto and Vancouver; it begins its expansion across the country July 28.

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