Light of My Life marks Casey Affleck’s return to directing after the controversial I’m Still Here. The film is a pastiche that sways between a dystopic and survival story with a scent of horror tension. But what’s hiding underneath is the pure narrative of a father’s love for his daughter.
Light of My Life could easily end after the opening scene. It’s an over ten minutes long and uncut scene featuring Casey Affleck as a father and Anna Pniowsky as his tomboy-looking daughter Rag. The father – who remains unnamed throughout the entire movie – is telling his child a bedtime story about a female fox. As soon as he starts narrating, we are captured by Affleck’s storytelling artistry: It turns out that all we needed was Casey Affleck telling us a bedtime story in a reassuring tone. The tale is deeply inspired to Noah’s ark apocalyptic events. As the story starts to take shape, we can’t help but notice that the father mainly focuses on the ordeals of a male fox, leaving the supposedly main character, the female fox, in the background. Rag soon becomes aware of this and scolds her father, asking him the reason for his chauvinistic detour. The father is caught off guard: he isn’t able to answer the question.
The opening scene is the perfect prologue to the film, because it acclimatizes the audience with all the topics the film addresses. First of all, Light of My Life’s apocalyptic setting is deeply inspired by the story of Noah’s ark. As a matter of fact, we later discover that the female population has been wiped out because of a pandemic, and that Rag is supposedly the last girl left. Rag’s father is trying to keep her hidden, pretending that she’s a boy, hence the tomboy look – short haircut and boy clothes.
Then, there’s the father’s digression while he tells the story, which was originally supposed to be centred on the female fox and then ends up revolving all around the male fox. The meaning behind his detour is the common and stigmatised behaviour of men when it comes to women: Affleck is denouncing the tendency of men to take credit for women’s work, which explains the lack of women in historically man-centred narratives. In the depicted dystopia, the world is only inhabited by men. The reason why Rag’s father wants to keep her hidden is because he fears their raw violence. He’s ready to sacrifice his life by hiding in tents in the woods and always being on the run, because he firmly believes it’s the only way to protect Rag. But, is it really the father who has to save the daughter, or could it also be the other way around?
Affleck’s Light of My Life is a shift in perception, and the audience is being challenged to understand who’s moving the plot. By taking us to a distorted future where the present is supposed to lie all covered up, the film asks us to remove the blanket and recognize the resemblances. We can catch a glimpse of the #MeToo movement, of the recent attempts to establish a balance between male and female-lead narratives.
However, the problem with this apocalyptic kind of universe is that is has been done to death. The whole setting feels fairly trite and comes close to the point of letting the core topics of the film slip away. Which is a shame, because not only does it make the movie feel like something we have seen before, but the audience isn’t encouraged to dive into the story. And the story has such great potential. We are immediately reminded of McCarthy’s The Road mixed with The Handmaid’s Tale.
The whole father-daughter relationship often gets overshadowed by the background tone, which surfaces to the foreground. Affleck chose horror movies’ slow rhythm to convey the feeling of proximity of these apocalyptic events. The film becomes a lesson of patience; it teaches you to wait. Nevertheless, what frequently happens is that the director’s urgency of aesthetic perfection very often gains the upper hand on the plot. The idea is there and is tangible, but the plot and its characters are not evolving or doing anything, just killing time on-screen.
Casey Affleck’s acting, nonetheless, could redeem the entire movie. He fits perfectly in the part and is incredibly convincing in everything he says and does. But, just like his character, he risks overshadowing his young co-star Anna Pniowsky, who’s just as excellent in her role. Her genderless traits and the boy clothes her character is forced to wear go together very well. To add more depth to Rag’s character is her desire to enjoy her forbidden femininity, which remains latent and hidden under Pniowsky’s baby girl glances.
So yes, Light of My Life could have fairly ended after the first scene. Except that it doesn’t. And the following events – or un-events – simply don’t match up to it. Expectations have been created and, subsequently, partially neglected. However, it’s done in a gentle and innocent way.
Light of My Life was released on 9th August in the U.S. and Canada and 16th August in the U.K. and select European countries. It will be out in Italy on 7th November 2019.