A lot has been discussed about Academy Award-winner Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) in the wake of the civil lawsuits he settled in 2010 for his misconduct towards women on set. It is intriguing then, to say the least, that the actor makes his directorial debut with the subject matter chronicled in “Light of My Life,” a film he also wrote and stars.
“Light of My Life” is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic time where the mysterious QTB virus has wiped out almost all the women on Earth. Affleck portrays Caleb, the ardent and overwrought father of a young girl, Rag (Anna Pniowsky). He desperately tries to shield Rag from the dangers of this new world, dressing her as a boy and referring to her as his son whenever they encounter new people. Caleb uses a nightly story-telling routine to teach Rag the value of listening to her conscious and remaining vigilant to her surroundings. Rag is an unruly and inquisitive tween, however, who challenges his lessons in hopes to learn more than he allows. Affleck uses one of these nightly routines to open the film with a twelve-minute uncut monologue. It is here that we first see how challenging Rag is becoming, as she interrupts his stories to correct his mistakes and inconsistencies. Affleck allows the tension to stew while establishing the relationship between the father and his only child.
The pair lives alone in the moody woods of the Pacific Northwest, accentuated by the gray and drizzly palette of Vancouver and the somber, weighty score from Daniel Hart. Affleck’s film is very reminiscent of Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” in both physical setting and themes of perseverance. Granik’s film also details a desperate father (Ben Foster) and adolescent daughter’s (Thomasin McKenzie) existence off the grid being challenged by outside threats.
Comparisons will be drawn to other dramas that feature a paternal hero protecting their young child, like the previously mentioned “Leave No Trace.” Others might notice the similar and conventional post-apocalyptic themes in which a family must do everything to stay together in a troubled and dangerous world – like “It Comes at Night” and “The Road,” the latter of which Affleck leans most heavily on.
The movie is highlighted by the breakthrough performance of its young star, Anna Pniowsky. The budding, soon-to-be thirteen-year-old actress instinctively conveys the unshakable bond between father and daughter. She astutely pushes the film forward through her restless desire to know more about the lawless world around her. During one particular lesson, Rag petitions her father for deeper insight into the difference between morals and ethics. This was a key moment that was not only my favorite in the film, but also, perhaps, placed intentionally to highlight the underlying themes of “Light of My Life” that spawned from the #metoo movement Affleck had recently been embroiled in.
Affleck’s filmography ranges widely – from indie dramas like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” to blockbusters like “Ocean’s Eleven.” But it is his penchant for the slow-burn that he is most widely known for, and that is once again the case with “Light of My Life.” Just as Caleb navigates a world without hope, Affleck seamlessly directs the film with the craftsmanship of a practical and seasoned director. Through the use of long takes and tightened shots, he allows us to understand the strained relationship of a tired and lonely father desperately trying to protect and raise a curious and ardent girl. He deliberately allows the film to take its time building to a boil. Affleck manages to keep the tension and suspense of his world simmering despite taking the long road to get there. Even if the film is a bit self-indulgent at times, focusing on the actors more often than the story it is trying to tell, it treads the water lightly and never meanders too far out to sea.
“Light of My Life” is a deeply emotional drama that works despite its derivative narrative. We’ve seen this song and dance before in other films, but the palpable dynamics of the two leads cast their spell and keep the audience engaged. The film doubles as a poignant exercise in transparency for Affleck, whose newly discovered faculty behind the camera is something that will leave fans of art-house cinema excited for what he takes on next.