'Light From Light': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A compassionate haunting.

Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan star in writer-director Paul Harrill's drama about four characters wrestling with personal choices while investigating a possible afterlife presence.

The fog that cloaks the Great Smoky Mountains lends palpable atmosphere to Light From Light, an unconventional ghost story that eschews horror trappings in favor of subdued spiritual and emotional intensity. Acted with soulful feeling by a fine cast led by Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan, writer-director Paul Harrill’s second feature is constructed around a paranormal investigation but is really more interested in the internal forces haunting its four principal characters. Modest in scale but rich in sensitivity, this is an unassuming film, made all the more transfixing by its defining delicacy and understatement.

Ireland plays single mother Shelia, who works at an airport car rental counter but conducts an occasional sideline in paranormal investigation. In a radio interview that opens the film, she recounts a prophetic dream she had at age eight, which led people to claim she had “the gift,” though when asked if she’s a believer or a skeptic, she lacks the certainty to give a concrete answer.

A local priest (David Cale) hears the broadcast and contacts Shelia about Richard (Gaffigan), a troubled parishioner he’s been counseling. Shelia visits the recently widowed man at his old East Tennessee farmhouse, where he tells her he has felt a hand on his shoulder and witnessed possible phenomena like keys moving and lights flickering on and off. He believes it’s his wife — killed when a small private plane in which she was a passenger crashed in the mountains — trying to communicate with him. Shelia has cut ties with her last ghost-hunting group but she agrees to investigate, declining payment.

Harrill holds back just as much as his script reveals. But aided by the crisp observations of Greta Zozula’s camera, the hushed ambient moods of Adam Granduciel and Jon Natchez’s score, and most of all, by the pain, regret and closed-off vulnerability etched into Ireland’s face, he hints at the numbing sadness of Shelia’s life. She seems no more at peace than the sorrowfully burdened Richard, or the lingering spirit of his dead wife, whether the latter exists in ghost form or not.

It’s perhaps Shelia’s own jaded experience that makes her encourage the instincts of her teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins) to protect himself from hurt by curbing any potential romance with his sweet, open-hearted study partner Lucy (Atheena Frizzell) before it even starts. But when Shelia asks Owen to assist in an overnight investigation of Richard’s house, Lucy asks to come along, too.

A gifted regular of the New York stage who might just be incapable of an inauthentic moment, Ireland gives this unerringly restrained film a strong emotional center. Her eyes are deep pools that suggest a complicated inner life, and the empathy behind Shelia’s carefully chosen words with Richard, or her gentle touch as she reaches out to comfort him, infuses the entire film. A scene in which they hike into the mountains to the site of the plane crash is lovely, devoid of outward emotional displays but no less stirring for it.

Audiences who know Gaffigan solely through his comedy persona will be unprepared for the affecting depths of his performance here as a man plainly depressed, yet oddly hopeful. Even the stinging personal circumstances surrounding his wife's death haven't dimmed his urge for communion with her.

The climactic scenes contain unexpected revelations, but Harrill maintains an intriguing element of ambiguity. Have Richard and Shelia witnessed a paranormal episode or is it simply a manifestation of his need for reconciliation and her wish to help facilitate that, perhaps finding some of the meaning lacking in her own life in the process? David Lowery, who is an executive producer here, was more explicit about the unfinished business of the dead with their loved ones in 2017's A Ghost Story. But there are similarities in the poetry and poignancy of loss and loneliness captured in Harrill's film, which also counts Elisabeth Moss among its producers.

The writer-director refuses to spell anything out too neatly, or to force conventional connections among the characters, but their experiences in the "haunted" house appear also to break down the cautious barriers keeping Owen from Lucy. Their timid mutual attraction is played with real tenderness by both of the appealing young actors; a moment when Owen ignores Lucy's hint about the high school homecoming dance is typical of the movie's ability to depict intimate feeling with exemplary economy of means.

Like Harrill's well-received first feature Something, Anything, this is a minor-key work executed with unfussy assurance and a firm grasp of tone, finding melancholy beauty in the landscapes of the director's native Tennessee. The film's prevailing mood is somber, but both its ending and its title suggest that light will emerge from life's mysteries if you let it.

Production companies: Ley Line Entertainment, Sailor Bear, in association with Ten Acre Films
Cast: Marin Ireland, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Wiggins, Atheena Frizzell, David Cale

Director-screenwriter: Paul Harrill
Producers: James M. Johnston, Kelly Williams, Toby Halbrooks, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Headington, Theresa Steele
Executive producers: Jonathan Duffy, David Lowery
Director of photography: Greta Zozula
Production designer: Brittany Ingram
Costume designer: Nichole Hull
Music: Adam Granduciel, Jon Natchez
Editor: Courtney Ware
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Sales: ICM

82 minutes