'Light of My Life': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A respectable debut, with more depth of feeling than originality.

Casey Affleck directs his first narrative feature with this survival drama in which he plays a father trying to protect his daughter in a post-pandemic society where the female population has been decimated.

The world is a grim place where humanity hangs in the balance and every stranger is a potential threat in Casey Affleck's Light of My Life. But inside the tiny tent on the forest floor where a father coaxes his daughter to sleep with a story is an intimate oasis of trust and protection. That contrast — along with the questioning intelligence of Anna Pniowsky in a performance of luminous naturalism as the young girl forced to pass as a boy — breathes warmth into this rather heavy, slow-burn drama, a brooding mood piece that erupts into violence in the closing act.

What holds the film back is the familiarity of its elements. Inevitably, it recalls Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, a beautiful story of a father attempting to teach his daughter how to live in the invisible margins, just as her curiosity about life beyond their insular unit is growing. While the wilderness in which much of the drama unfolds here is untainted, in psychological terms, it's no less a desolate wasteland than the post-apocalyptic terrain traveled by another parent-child pair in The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. And any dystopian story in which the reproductive future of mankind is in jeopardy must contend with the shadow of The Handmaid's Tale.

Affleck, who wrote and directed the film as well as playing the unnamed father, frames this post-pandemic future-world in an American backwoods frontier setting. The bedtime story he tells his 11-year-old daughter, nicknamed Rag, is a variation on the Noah's Ark parable that goes on at self-indulgent length (he gives Noah an Australian accent, perhaps as a jokey dig at Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky's Noah) before Rag asks: "Am I the only girl of my species?" She has no memory of ever seeing another female.

In fragmented flashbacks, we see her mother (Elisabeth Moss), who succumbed to the devastating mystery virus dubbed "the female plague." There are tender exchanges with Affleck's character in which the dying woman reassures him that he'll know how to nurture and protect their infant daughter because he has no choice. And as devoted as he is to the child, the mournful veil of his loss — not just of his wife but of the wholeness of family — hangs over the film. Affleck plays him as a man half-broken yet entirely dedicated to keeping his daughter safe in an environment where the potential harm awaiting her is clear without ever needing to be stated.

As much as Rag's childhood has been defined by the security of a loving parent, she's also been raised to be acutely aware of danger. Drills are a routine part of every new campsite or abandoned house in which they take up residence — establishing safe spaces, stashing emergency bags and mapping quick escape routes. Rag is getting to the age where a boyish haircut isn't quite enough to disguise her gender, and the predatory stares and intrusive questions of strangers during their supply runs to town make her Dad more cautious. Her growing propensity to think for herself and question her father's decisions only adds to his anxiety, while at the same time he concedes the need to begin treating her as an adult, on a path to independence.

Affleck drops in nuggets of information about female babies being born in labs in California and China, and refuges where pockets of women survivors hide out in seclusion, though he limits details of the pandemic's spread to quick glimpses of TV and newspaper reports, declining to elaborate on what caused the plague or what made only women susceptible. Nor does he explain how Rag survived.

The film meanders a bit at two full hours, but it picks up tension once they are forced to flee the area, traveling a great distance in harsh winter conditions to a house in the mountains that belonged to Rag's paternal great-grandmother. They find it occupied by three evangelical Christians who seem to offer sanctuary. But this is a world so infested with malice that menace can rarely be kept at bay for long.

The preference of Affleck and DP Adam Arkapaw for diffuse natural lighting means some of the climactic violence is captured in a shadowy blur. But it provides a suitably intense payoff that somewhat predictably marks Rag's loss of innocence. Affleck is generally more confident with dialogue-driven scenes than with physical action, but the movie has a haunting atmosphere of quiet dread, much of it shot in rain or snow, and a mood of enveloping melancholy fueled by arresting use of Daniel Hart's solemnly spiritual score. (Shooting took place in Canada, but the landscapes suggest the Pacific Northwest crossing into Montana.)

Being basically a two-character drama, it's very much performance-driven. Affleck creates a mumbly, tightly-knotted character that we've seen from him before, but the father's devotion to his daughter is frequently moving. Pniowsky is a real discovery. Rag is tough, observant and wise beyond her years. When she tells her own version of the Noah's Ark story, the hope of survival remains resilient in her.

Production companies: Black Bear Pictures, Sea Change Media, Middleton Media Group
Cast: Casey Affleck, Anna Pniowsky, Elisabeth Moss, Tom Bower, Hrothgar Mathews, Timothy Webber, Monk Serrell Freed

Director-screenwriter: Casey Affleck
Producers: Teddy Schwarzman, Casey Affleck, John Powers Middleton
Executive producers: Michael Helmer, Ben Stillman, Whitaker Lader
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Sara K. White
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Music: Daniel Hart
Editors: Dody Dorn, Christopher Tellefsen
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

Sales: Sierra/Affinity

119 minutes