Synopsis – Parent and child journey through the outskirts of society a decade after a pandemic has wiped out half the world’s population. As a father struggles to protect his child, their bond, and the character of humanity, is tested.
My Take – I think by just glancing at his filmography we can all confirm that Casey Affleck is a truly phenomenal actor, who has been flying under the radar for a very long time. While his performances in films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone, The Killer Inside Me, and Out of the Furnace never went unnoticed, it was his Oscar winning turn as Lee Chandler in director Kenneth Lonergan‘s Manchester by the Sea, that effectively put him on the general audience map, as a champion of Indie cinema.
Now nearly a decade after his stunt documentary, I’m Not Here (2010) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck returns to the writer and director’s chair for his sophomore effort in the form of an art-house portrait of the post-apocalypse which at first glimpse looks heavily borrowed from The Road, Children of Men, and the much acclaimed 2013 video game The Last of Us.
However, what separates Affleck‘s from the lot, is how simple the film is, despite the presence of powerful idea behind it. While films like Bird Box, It Comes at Night, and A Quiet Place, focused on families fending themselves off from rampant scavengers and violent extraterrestrial interlopers whilst dealing with issues of procreation, Affleck‘s film is more of a brilliant character piece that uses its superb writing instead of violence to create fear and suspense.
While some might be put off by how slow-burn the drama is, but looking at the confidence on show, it is just too impressive to ignore, proving that Affleck is almost as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it.
The story follows Rag (Anna Pniowsky) and her dad (Casey Affleck), surviving in a world which was hit by a female plague shortly after Rag was born, killing almost every woman including her mother (Elisabeth Moss). Now, the few women who have survived face capture, rape and certain death.
Keeping her hair short and dressed as a boy, Rag and her dad stay on the move, with only their stories, meager supplies and survival skills to keep them company. And even though, she’s still only a pre-teen, it’s getting harder for her dad to keep them safe every day.
While girls are apparently being manufactured in a lab in California, the imperative remains to keep Rag safe until, or if, things change. There are complications, of course, and a growing rebellious streak that has her dad on edge; but what can be done?
Setting aside the tired premise of the film, there are moments of legitimate artistry and excitement. Although post-apocalyptic narratives like this are nothing new, as a director Affleck approaches it in a way that is much more nuanced and rooted in emotion than most other films like this. While this is not quite up to the standard of that modern masterpiece, it is written, directed and acted with sophistication and heart.
From the outset, this feels like a companion piece to last year’s Leave No Trace or, thematically at least, The Road. That’s probably, as Affleck’s film is a slow-burner, opening out cautiously. Our introduction to both our protagonist is set, in a forest where they are on the run, but as a director Affleck is more interested in establishing the dynamic between the duo than their surroundings at this point. He certainly brings all his talents as an actor and experiences as a father to the film’s wonderful opening sequence, in which Dad tells Rag an impromptu, rambling bedtime story.
Here, Affleck also does an excellent job of developing his characters in a way that is extremely compelling. It is definitely very easy to get behind the protagonist and his desire to protect his daughter. Protecting loved ones is one of the most basic motivations for characters because it is one to which audiences can immediately connect. Thematically, the film is about family in extreme circumstances.
First, there’s dad running himself to the point of exhaustion. At one point, the two find an abandoned house. They know it’s not safe, but it’s much-needed shelter from the cold. Dad goes through the house looking for supplies, creating hiding spaces for themselves and their camping gear, just in case they need to escape quickly. And the scenes between the two can be heartbreaking, as she grapples with questions he can’t answer and the balance between them starts to shift.
The film becomes even more elemental as they return to Dad’s childhood home, and the snowy vistas of Vancouver Island close in on mankind’s petty endeavors. The occasional flashbacks also detail the heartrending moments of Caleb and his long-gone, disease-stricken wife, which lend credence to the sincerely somber and contemplative nature of the film.
Second, the film is about parenting. Rag was a toddler when Mom died from the plague. Dad has been playing the role as single father. There’s a hilarious scene when Dad teaches Rag about periods, racism, and sex in a single setting. As Rag grows older, she begins to wonder if how much longer Dad can assume the role of protector.
For some, the similarities to The Road will feel like a detriment, and for others, the stop-start pacing across two hours will be a problem. But it’s difficult to watch this film and not recognize Affleck’s obvious talents as a filmmaker, even if some of his rougher tendencies need smoothing out a little. Like he takes a bit too long to get where he’s going, and once we get there it’s quite obvious it’s a place we’ve been before. But the journey is at times captivating, dotted with moments of real intimacy and emotion.
Another part of what makes the film so resonant is the performances. Casey Affleck does a wonderful job in his lead role, giving what is one of the best turns of his career. With a more substantial theatrical release in the U.S, this could have given him another acting nomination. Anna Pniowsky is great too, delivering a complex and emotion-packed performance. The two have a captivating bond as father and daughter, clearly informed by Affleck’s real-life relationships with his children and Pniowsky’s instinctive talents as an actor.
In a small role, Elisabeth Moss doesn’t really have much to do, but Tom Bower‘s chews up the scenery with his effective supporting turn. On the whole, ‘Light of My Life’ is a fascinating and emotional film with great performances and enough heartfelt moments to make it a satisfying watch.
Directed – Casey Affleck
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes