Growing up at the end of the world

Casey Affleck’s directorial debut Light of My Life – about a world where most women have been killed by a plague – covers familiar territory in a confident way.

One criticism that has often been directed at actor-turned-directors is the idea that their films are often just pastiche of something they were in solely as an actor. It stands to reason that if being on a set really is the best film school and that actors gain directorial experience by osmosis as they so often claim in interviews, then the things they learn will inevitably be coloured by the places they learned them. Where I think the criticism is a bit simplistic is that all this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. While it’s true that George Clooney should have set his sights a little lower than simply matching the Coens, the near-opposite applies to Casey Affleck’s debut as a director. Light of My Life sees Affleck clearly taking inspiration from the works of David Lowery, who he has worked with thrice so far — its loping pace, skeletonized genre elements, restraint and glowering nature very much in line with what Lowery has done in the past.

If, perhaps, Lowery was a filmmaker with more global recognition or a more readily identifiable style, Affleck’s work on Light of My Life may come across as more than mere inspiration. As it stands, Affleck’s film is a worthy continuation of the bloodline: a moody, deliberately paced post-apocalyptic meditation on parenthood that’s not nearly as controversial (or provocative) as its premise may suggest.

Dad (Casey Affleck) lives a nomadic lifestyle with his 11-year-old daughter, affectionately known as Rag (Anna Pniowsky). They camp outside and stay on the move, forever trying to stay one step ahed of the rest of the world — that’s because, some ten years prior, a mysterious plague wiped out most (if not all) of the women on Earth. Rag (which is short for Raggedy Ann) is perhaps the only survivor of the plague – which means her father is trying to delay knowledge of this by the outside world as much as possible. Rag poses as a boy as the pair travel the countryside with no real goal in mind other than survival – one that is becoming increasingly difficult to rationalize as Rag becomes older, more intelligent and more cognizant of the world around her.

Though Light of My Life is by definition a post-apocalyptic film, it isn’t so much defined by the actual dangers that lurk outside but rather the possibility of said dangers. Dad doesn’t know for sure if his daughter is actually in danger, but all the men he crosses are defeated and angry. The plague was unfair” and robbed every man of part of their family, and the very idea of Rag represents to these men the ultimate injustice. Society has continued to exist, but in a resigned and bitter way. The danger is not so much supernatural but somehow crushingly, depressingly banal. (Some have surmised before seeing the film that the premise was actually presenting some sort of skewed, problematic utopia; in fact, it presents a sort of extended grief period that will only be solved by the grieving’s own death.)

The father-and-child dynamic is one that comes up relatively often in similar scenarios, and it has to be said that Light of My Life suffers somewhat from its similarities to films like The Road or Leave No Trace (which is, admittedly, not post-apocalyptic). Though the film relies heavily on the uniqueness of the relationship (they’re the only father-daughter pair left, as far as we know), the dynamic is one familiar enough that it threatens to clash against the narrative. Were this, say, the kind of film overly concerned with the suspense of whether or not someone will find out that Rag is actually a girl, that would be a problem. The few times that the film dips into this territory are, in fact, its most familiar aspects.

Where Light of My Life really sets itself apart is in its restraint and its avoidance of the obvious and the well-trod. In that sense, it begins to resemble Lowery’s films the most: unhurried and almost anti-dramatic, it develops into a layered exploration of parenthood and the difficulties of raising a child in unorthodox circumstances. Dad has tried his best to raise Rag as an upstanding citizen of a world she can’t really inhabit: he teaches her about the difference between morals and ethics, makes sure she reads plenty and tries to explain that the values of gossip rags aren’t to be upheld (even if the world it’s gossiping about no longer exists). These are things that will perhaps never really come in handy to Rag, but they remain foundational to her existence — and, to Dad’s constant surprise, she learns and figures out things on her own despite the fact that he spends every waking second of his life with her.

With relatively spartan photography, minimal music (from Daniel Hart, who uncoincidentally also scores David Lowery’s films) and few characters, Light of my Life is a deliberately unshowy film. As a writer-turned-director, Affleck seems almost afraid to give himself any showboating moments — all decisions that make for a significantly less outré but ultimately more interesting movie. (There is no eating of barbecued babies in this particular post-apocalyptic movie.) Affleck’s off-screen persona may have made him a complicated and polarizing Hollywood figure, but as a director, he certainly knows what he’s doing. ■

Light of My Life opens at Cinéma Moderne (5150 Saint-Laurent) on Friday, Aug. 9, as well as VOD and on-demand. Watch the trailer here: