I’m always drawn to movies that highlight fathers and daughters and explore the dynamics that often define their relationships. You can probably guess why, but movies that do it well really speak to me. Last year it was Debra Granik’s brilliant “Leave No Trace”. This year Casey Affleck’s “Light of My Life” strikes many of the same powerful chords.
Affleck directs, writes, co-produces, and stars in this slow-brewing but intimate survival drama. It uses some of the same elements found in Granik’s film and laces them with the dystopian flavor of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It’s a compelling stew, but at its core it’s still a story about a dad named Caleb (Affleck) and his daughter Rag (played by impressive newcomer Anna Pniowsky).
The story takes place a decade after a devastating plague has wiped out almost all of the world’s female population. Included among the casualties is Caleb’s wife and Rag’s mom (played in a handful of flashbacks by Elisabeth Moss). Affleck paints a bleak portrait of a world without women. It’s dark, ugly, and on the brink of total collapse.
In one scene Caleb explains the crumbling world as being unbalanced. An inquisitive Rags asks “When will it be balanced?” Her father can only respond “When there are more women.” It’s all he knows to say. He’s being honest while trying to offer his daughter a glimmer of hope. At the same time he knows the outlook is grim and there is no guarantee that the world will ever be the same again.
Caleb and Rag live along the outskirts of this shell of civilization. Rag’s hair is kept short and she dresses as a boy in order to keep safe. The reasons why are both obvious and ominous, bringing a heightened level of tension and suspicion to every encounter. Affleck’s fierce development of atmosphere and mood causes us to question the motives and intents of every person they meet.
The setting is undeniably dour, but Affleck’s interests are considerably more intimate. As the movie’s title implies, it’s a story about paternal love, the anxieties of parenting, and growing up in unforgiving circumstances. The film tosses aside practically every modern convention and puts an extraordinary amount of time into its two main characters. Take the opening scene where Caleb lays next to Rag telling her a version of Noah’s Ark. It’s a gutsy long take featuring a static camera locked on Affleck and Pniowsky. It may go a hair too long but it’s still an ambitious character-focused approach.
Elsewhere we get heart-to-heart conversations about mortality, the state of the world, and the difference between morals and ethics. We even get a lighthearted dinner table scene where Caleb awkwardly attempts to cover everything from racism to…(you know)…’THE talk’ all in one uncomfortable sitting. It’s a tender and welcomed moment of levity that shines a light On the fantastic chemistry between Affleck and Pniowsky.
But then you have the film’s dark side vividly seen in its sketch of a male-dominated society. Aside from being a potent metaphor, Affleck’s grim milieu and its undercurrent of savagery makes for some harrowing sequences. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw coats his images in blues, whites, and grays while shooting in a way that highlights the emptiness of the landscapes. And when we do get glimpses of approaching men in the distance it can be genuinely frightening.
At the end of Caleb’s Noah’s Ark story Rag challenges her father “You said it would be about the girl, why do you keep talking about the boy? You can’t miss the subtle indictment in light of how male-centered our perspectives can be. And considering this is a movie about a father driven to shield his daughter from aggressive men, you can’t help but wonder if this is Affleck dealing with his past transgressions. It’s hard to say, but the film’s message is forceful, its approach is thoughtful, and its storytelling is raw and unflinching. It’s sure to be too slow for some and too gloomy for others. I fell in with its rhythm and found plenty of heart to light a path through the darkness.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS