In the opening scene of Light of My Life, the first narrative feature written and directed by Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck, a man named Caleb (Affleck) and his daughter, nicknamed Rag (Anna Pniowsky), lie in a dimly lit, weathered tent. Caleb tells Rag a story derived from the tale of Noah’s Ark, but which gets revised as Caleb adjusts to Rag’s questions and observations. It’s a risky way to open a film and points up both Affleck’s strengths and flaws as a first-time filmmaker: the sequence establishes the bond and love between the two characters, yet goes on too long for its own good.
The relationship between Caleb and Rag is the full, beating heart of Light of My Life, and Affleck does excellent work with it, both as an actor and a writer (he is aided magnificently by Pniowsky, making an extraordinary debut here). There is genuine affection and empathy for and between father and daughter, and a shared love for stories about the world as it was and as they’d like it to be, which of course makes their circumstances only more dread-inducing.
A virus has wiped out most of the world’s female population (including Mom, played in short flashbacks by Elisabeth Moss) and, naturally, society has collapsed in a miasma of lawlessness and toxic masculinity. For her safety in a world where it’s harder to tell the good men from the bad, Caleb has chopped off 11-year-old Rag’s hair and dressed her in boy’s clothing, passing her off as his son and staying largely away from towns and what’s left of population centers (it’s hinted that the surviving women are either living in remote, protected enclaves or “kept” in less hospitable environs).
Caleb has sort of a plan to get somewhere where he thinks they can be safe, but the truth is that he’s making it up as they go: bouncing from hidden campsites in the woods to abandoned houses, ready to leave at a second’s notice if there’s a “red alert,” Caleb is doing his best to keep his daughter safe while giving her some shred of normality in a world that has gone to hell.
Much of this, of course, will seem overly derivative to viewers of films like The Road (with which this shares many attributes) and A Quiet Place, and the weakest aspect of the story is the familiarity of scenes in which Caleb and Rag are either forced to flee from dangerous men or spend endless minutes scoping out potential places in which to briefly settle. There’s a bleak sense of fear and futility to those elements that only becomes more depressing with each movie they’re unspooled in, and Affleck proceeds through all of it at the same leisurely pace of that first sequence.
But Light of My Life does reach for profundity and occasionally grasps it, again thanks to the moving dynamic between the two lead actors. The movie is at its best, its most intimate and its most personal during a number of their scenes, with the back-and-forth between them (Caleb never talks down to Rag) evidently given great care by the filmmaker, who has two sons himself. And while the movie touches on #MeToo concerns with its female-centric cataclysm (another risky move for Affleck considering that he has some history there on his previous film, the mock doc I’m Still Here), it’s more about the struggle to retain one’s decency and keep any kind of family at all together in the midst of upheaval and strife.
Affleck and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw compose a series of painterly shots that make even the grayest of Pacific Northwest locations seem somehow beautiful and lyrical, and the film’s structural and narrative flaws aside, Affleck clearly shows that he has potential and talent behind the camera. There’s a quiet sense of grace and humanity that shines through in Light of My Life, even if the story that Casey Affleck is telling takes a little too long to get to a place we’ve been before.
Light of My Life is out now in limited release, as well as on digital and on demand.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye