Light of My Life. Written and directed by Casey Affleck. Starring Affleck and Anna Pniowsky. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Casey Affleck’s debut narrative film (we’re conveniently forgetting I’m Still Here, his experimental and lamentable feature debut) opens with a long, unhurried story about a pair of foxes, a companion piece to Noah’s Ark.
Dad and daughter lie in a weathered tent in the woods. The 11-year-old daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky), isn’t yet too old for bedtime stories, but is just sharp enough to point out that his story starts out being about a girl fox and ends up with the male fox as the hero.
It’s what we all do, make the story about ourselves, and it’s what our male-dominated culture does especially well. It’s also a risky move from Affleck, who has faced his own sexual misconduct allegations. But he tackles the commodification of women head-on and to an extreme degree in Light Of My Life.
For this is no ordinary camping trip: the female population has been all but wiped out by a mysterious virus – her own mother (Elizabeth Moss, seen in brief flashbacks) died when Rag was an infant– and society has fallen apart as a result. Dad keeps Rag’s hair short and dresses her in boys’ clothes, but every encounter with a stranger is fraught with danger.
“Just because people aren’t getting sick any more doesn’t mean the world is right again,” Dad tells Rag.
“When will it be right again?” she asks.
“When there are more women.”
Parents of daughters, make no mistake: this is a horror movie. This is your fear of having your child being taken from you multiplied to the nth degree. Rag is one of the last females left in the landscape. “Am I the only girl of my species? I’m the only one I ever saw.” The few survivors mentioned in the film have been ripped to pieces by predators or are being “kept” in armed, makeshift communities of desperate men.
Thus the urgent but relentlessly bleak tone of the film, which was written and directed by Affleck. There are red-alert drills and emergency supplies cached in the woods, but there isn’t much of a plan: Dad is just making it up as he goes, moving from campsites in the woods to abandoned homes and barns. The viewer scrambles along with the father to imagine a scenario for Rag where she is safe, to manufacture a happy ending where there is none.
Shot in British Columbia, with lensing by DOP Adam Arkapaw and a trim score by Daniel Hart, the film calls to mind other post-apocalyptic parenting films such as A Quiet Place and The Road or even Children Of Men. Light Of My Life has the added gender-terror component, which plays into our fascination with extremes in male-female power imbalance, seen in TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale and in the pages of Naomi Alderman’s best-selling book The Power.
Ultimately, though, the film hinges on the relationship between father and daughter, and the stories shared.
Affleck and Pniowsky find a genuine, easy rapport onscreen. Winnipeg-born Pniowsky gives an assured debut; Affleck gives a subtle yet career-defining performance as a man who must always think three steps ahead of the masses but occasionally has to pause to raise his daughter. There is a predictably awkward talk about the birds and the bees, and a surprisingly grown-up discussion about the difference between ethics and morality, providing just a glimmer of hope that, given the chance to grow up, Rag might just be the one to make the world right again.