Light of My Life (2019)

Directed by Casey Affleck

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Light of My Life owes a lot to 2017’s A Ghost Story.  It would appear that Affleck took more from that film in which he acted than just its composer and visual aesthetic.  In his post-apocalyptic survival tale the main theme is the stories we tell to each other and pass on.  It’s these stories which enable a different, more spiritual, kind of survival.

The films share a similar melancholy, anchored by Daniel Hart’s music, a general empathy between the sensitive characters and the consistently long, static frames which acquaint you with the patience of life.  When A Ghost Story opens we see Affleck and Rooney Mara lying together on a couch, with her softly telling him a story from her childhood.  In Light of My Life it’s Affleck telling a story to his daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky).

It’s an extended opening scene that makes us familiar with their relationship, how they talk and the more disorienting aspects of their world.  The film takes place a little more than a decade after a plague that wiped out the majority of the female population.  Rag, her father explains, is immune, and having been less than a year old at the time, this is the only world she knows.

The film does an effective job of slowly introducing the details of this world.  It’s an apocalypse not quite like what you typically see onscreen.  They live in the forest and occasionally bump into other men from whom the father insists on keeping their distance.  He tells them Rag, with her hair cut short, is a boy named Alex.

Later, however, they go into town where we see men carrying on to some extent as if there is still order in the world.  There are government programs set up to help maintain order and the rumored existence of safe communities for women.

The combination of order and disorder makes this feel like a postmodern western.  Abandoned houses are open for the taking, though in the forested darkness there always lingers the threat of those who would do you harm.  Any civilized order depends entirely on human kindness and empathy as there is no law enforcement or similar structure to speak of.

Rag and her father live just off this feeble grid, away from watchful, rabid eyes.  When trouble presents itself they move onto the next place, always with a backdoor exit.  Having become accustomed to the forest, particularly with the film’s patience, it’s a bit disorienting to see them find solace in a quaint but dusty country home.  They live there until men from a nearby town come by looking for trouble.

From there they find warmth during the winter in another home inhabited by three older men.  They provide comfort and conversation, but trouble will find them too.  With each stop the escalating challenges are foreshadowed by the detailed steps the father takes to prepare for them ahead of time.  Nothing will catch him too off guard, and though this over-preparedness at times gets in the way of their ability to simply live, it just about always comes in handy.

The film ends on a graceful note, keeping in tone with the film as a whole.  The pressures from outside continue to exert themselves, and the father and Rag fight back, though they don’t hit any new plateau.  There is no community to be found, no cartoonish villain to be overcome.  The people who become the greatest antagonists are instead faceless silhouettes.  The father will grapple with them in messy, brutal combat, often in the dark so that we cannot even tell who is who and for a time they might as well be cut from the same cloth.

The brutality is right there on the surface, something from which the father is not immune and soon neither will be Rag.  It’s a brutality they must endure and then embody simple to survive, and near the end it gets to the father who leans into his daughter’s arms for comfort.  This is what it takes to live.

She comforts him by repeating back a story about her mother that he had once told her.  It’s quiet and understated, but it’s the perfect coda for a film that is somehow all of sincere, charming, grotesque and uplifting.

Up Next: Ad Astra (2019), Upstream Color (2013), Silent Light (2007)

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