The film — which was written and directed by Affleck — is dark, reminiscent of the Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road but with a brutal gender twist. If Ray’s sex is revealed, she will become prey to hordes of predatorial men roaming the countryside. That means Rag has to dress as a boy and go by the name Alex when she has encounters any males that aren’t her father.
The film is Affleck’s first narrative feature as a director. It’s also his second film after his 2010 mockumentary, I’m Still Here, when he was sued by two women for sexual harassment on the set. Affleck denied the charges and an out-of-court settlement was reached. Under the circumstances, the “imagine all the women are dead” premise would not seem to hit exactly the right note of contrition.
That said, Light of My Life is an artistically serious and keenly sincere film. Shot in natural light, mostly in rural British Columbia, Light of My Life is unrushed, alternately naturalistic and dreamy, and consistent with the character-driven indie directors Affleck has worked with, such as Kenneth Lonergan, David Lowry, and Gus Van Sant. The two central performances are excellent, with Affleck as the rough-edged but loving father, simply known as Dad, who’s filled with love and anxiety for his daughter. Affleck, who won the Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, is in yet another of his gruffly wounded men.
With her broad cheeks and steady gaze, Affleck’s co-star, 11-year-old Anna Pniowsky, plays Rag with punch, rejecting Dad’s anxiety. She’s impatient with his rules, interested in books, and abstract questions of death and morality. There’s a lot of father-to-daughter talk. Dad’s well-meaning awkwardness on subjects from menstruation to misogyny feels entirely believable.
While the external threats against Rag and Dad are shown to be real, the biggest threat to their relationship is their changing relationship. Rag is growing up… and away from her father. She is beginning to think for herself and occasionally disobey Dad’s survivalist rules. Action scenes — escapes, fights, and a lot of low-level dread — are bridges to the next conversation that changes the balance of Dad and Rag’s relationship.
Light of My Life is still open to a negative interpretation. By killing off all the women, Affleck’s script allows the father’s obsession with his daughter’s sexuality to be a matter of heroism. That reading doesn’t necessarily contradict that Light of My Life is a parable about parental love and the limitations of protection. One of the appeals of fiction is that the same story can hold several meanings, including those that seem to contradict each other.
Light of My Life. Written and directed by Casey Affleck. Starring Casey Affleck and Anna Pniowsky. Opens in select theatres August 9.