A father and daughter navigate a hellscape
Children Of Men. The Road. A Quiet Place. Leave No Trace. All of these films come to mind and heavily influence writer/director/star Casey Affleck’s post-apocalyptic drama Light Of My Life. Fortunately, the 2019 film holds up well in comparison to those staggering achievements in cinema, while not quite equalling them.
We open with Rag (Ann led to Raggedy Ann led to Rag) and Dad during story time in a tent in the middle of nowhere. Dad (Casey Affleck) struggles to tell a story that will please his increasingly smart and self aware daughter. Rag (Anna Pniowsky, impressing in her first screen performance) refuses to let the story be about her, and senses when Dad’s thin metaphors really are stories about her. She also calls him out when a story that was supposed to be about a female character just ends up being about a male character instead. It’s a long and claustrophobic sequence never leaving the interior of the small tent. It’s our introduction to the only two major characters in this high concept, intimate tale of the apocalypse.
Our protagonists live in a world in which women caught some kind of plague, and they’re all gone. All except Rag and rumors. Naturally Dad has become consumed by his role as protector and provider. It’s all he lives for, never allowing himself a moment’s reprieve. Never taking any risks that might endanger Rag, even if it means isolation and lack of small comforts. Rag is dressed like a boy and keeps her hair short. The pair has all kinds of signals, contingency plans, and predetermined escape routes for everywhere they go. But it’s been years since the plague, and Rag is becoming a young woman. Puberty isn’t far off, and Dad really doesn’t have a long term plan for navigating this ravaged and woman-less world. His consumption with protecting Rag at any cost is veering into obsession and he’s losing sight of their humanity.
Light Of My Life is incredibly meditative in its pacing, bordering on languid. What little does happen, plot-wise, in the first half of the film simply establishes the world they’re navigating and gives us lots of insight into our leads, their dynamic together, and even glimpses into a time before the plague when Elisabeth Moss (Mom) was still there.
Many will dismiss Light Of My Life outright due to sexual harassment claims against Affleck. I certainly begrudge no one if this is the choice they make. Some may scoff at Affleck attempting to tell a story that deals so directly with female identity, gender dynamics, and parenthood in light of the claims against him. In that regard, I’d say this is also their right. I’ve found Affleck to be a remarkable screen talent and find the allegations against him troubling, but also found myself very drawn to the premise of this intimate film.
Ultimately Light Of My Life uses the apocalypse as somewhat of a metaphor for parenting, as well as for letting our girls grow up and come into their own despite our instincts to shelter and protect them. As a father of a young daughter myself, I couldn’t help but empathize deeply with our characters’ plight and get extremely emotionally invested in their journey. Dad makes incredible sacrifices to raise his daughter, and proves his unending devotion to her time and again. But this isn’t a movie about a heroic and selfless father. It’s about a young woman coming of age in a world that wants to eat her alive and commodify her. Pniowsky proves an excellent performer and gives Oscar-winner Affleck a run for his money. Rag is a well-realized and complex young woman and Affleck’s screenplay gives plenty of room for our leads to achieve dimensionality even if it’s ultimately the performances that really sell the characters. Rag’s child-like purity keeps her dad sane, but it’s her increasing maturity and ability to lead the way that will provide their only hope of salvation.
There’s danger and brutality in Light Of My Life, but it’s nigh impossible to consider this a thriller. It’s quiet, slight, and very character-focused. The film has an extremely small cast and was likely inexpensive, though also likely remained very challenging to create. It’s not perfect. There’s an enormous amount of time spent with Rag and Dad’s storytime. Some of that stuff probably wasn’t as subtle as Affleck may have hoped it would be, and it went on very long. I also found myself occasionally really disliking the look of the film and couldn’t quite tell if it was due to choices in cinematography and framing, or if it was that digital and cheap look that sometimes comes across in home video experiences.
In the end, I found it to be a powerful viewing experience. There’s no question there’s some subjectivity involved here as thoughts of my own beautiful and whip-smart little daughter crashed into my psyche. I couldn’t help but wonder what I’d do if I were Dad. Would I even be strong enough to survive as far as they have when we meet them? Would I make some of the same mistakes Dad is making? Would my love for my daughter stand up to the crushing weight of a world gone wrong?
And yet the simplicity of the tale and the high concept it’s nestled in do offer it up in comparison to other great high concept apocalypse and/or father-daughter films, and it often does not match the greatness of them. Even the comic book epic Y: The Last Man, a gender-reversed scenario that closely mirrors this story, feels more grand in scope and successful in execution. The very recent father-daughter drama Leave No Trace, or even Mickey And The Bear both feel more akin to this film than its apocalyptic counterparts. But even if Light Of My Life doesn’t cohere as strongly as those films do, there’s a lot of richness to be found here.
Those who choose not to engage in Affleck’s work would do well to seek out some of the films I’ve compared Light Of My Life to. Each are fantastic in their own ways. If the concept of this film intrigues you, however, I’d recommend giving it a shot. There’s some real depth of emotion and powerful human lessons explored.
Light Of My Life has absolutely no bonus content whatsoever, though it’s exciting that it did get a high definition home video release. I recommend the film but this experience could likely be undertaken via a digital download or eventual streaming service and the Blu-ray purchase probably isn’t necessary for most curious seekers.
And I’m Out.
Light Of My Life is now available on Digital and On Demand and available on Blu-ray & DVD October 8th from Paramount