The timing of the indie drama “Light of My Life” has the ring of atonement about it.
It stars a recent Oscar winner, Casey Affleck, who also wrote and directed it. But a tiny studio is releasing it.
The writer-director-star was caught up in the tidal wave of #MeToo.
And here he is playing a fanatically-devoted father on “The Road” with his endangered daughter, taking care to “Leave No Trace” as he protects her from the world after the viral apocalypse, the one that killed almost all of the women.
So yeah, there’s a hint of the offscreen world making its way, symbolically, onto the screen with this dystopian flipside of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
He calls the child Rag (Anna Pniowsky of TV’s “The Hot Zone”). And every night before dozing off in their tent, he tells Rag a story he makes up on the spot, stories that teach, about “listening to your inside voice,” about Noah and some foxes on the arc, borrowing a bit from the Old Testament when it suits his purposes.
Rag has short hair and dresses like a kid who has been camping with Dad ever since the disease struck (Elisabeth Moss plays the mother, seen in flashbacks). Rag is just entering her rebellious tweens, challenging Dad, and questioning him.
“Am I the only girl of my species?”
Probably not. But maybe. As they make their way through the depopulated anarchy of the rainy Pacific Northwest, everybody’s a stranger, everybody’s a loner, everybody’s a threat.
Some guy stumbles into their camp and gets the cold shoulder from Dad and “my son, Alex.”
“We’re not looking for any more company, sir.”
Keeping the child safe when she was younger was easier. She didn’t hesitate to hide when ordered to. She didn’t question his authority, his reasoning about every stranger.
“He’s a doddering old man.”
“Him, and everybody he knows.”
They’ve been on the run for a long time, we learn from their snatches of conversation as they evaluate whether to take shelter in an abandoned house
It’s “better than the barn,” she reasons.”Better than the greenhouse…the pond house.”
“I don’t think this is a safe place to be…I’m not going to be surprised by people like we were at the greenhouse.”
But they move inside out of the rain, and that’s where “Alex” or “Rag” makes her most rebellious decision, coming out as a straight girl, trying on girl’s pants and bedazzled jackets in the closets. She is getting too mature to keep her sexuality a secret from the world even if she’s still too immature to accept that maybe she should still heed her father’s fearful caution.
That conflict, within her and between her and her father, sets up the tense drama and confrontations to come.
Affleck ratchets up the suspense and raises the stakes with the film’s third act, but takes his sweet indulgent time getting us there. He establishes the relationship and the characters in a patience-testing twelve minute opening scene, almost a monologue — Dad telling Rag a story, her interrupting, correcting or questioning it as he does.
Her questions get harder than the simple math and spelling he’s quizzed her about, something any parent will recognize.
“What’s the difference between morals and ethics?”
Or the big one, “When will (the world) be right again?”
“When it’s balanced.”
“When will it be balanced?”
“When there are more women.”
That has a hint of “Handmaid’s Tale” about it. But Affleck’s film leans most heavily on the Cormac McCarthy adaptation “The Road” as it shows the absent mother’s illness, the wrenching decisions that packed them off and sent them off the disintegrating “grid.”
Dystopias and the rainy falls and winters of this corner of the Pacific Northwest fit together easily — grey skies, drab colors made more drab by all the damp. Spray paint “All hail the mothers” on an abandoned building, and viola, you’ve got your sci-fi dystopia.
The kid is affecting, the various men they encounter — even the kindly looking ones — have the taint of villainy and guilt about them.
“But not all men are sad and alone and angry.” Not even here.
And Affleck takes his brooding introversion to new levels here, a man wracked by grief and burdened with responsibility, a “moral” man eschewing violence and guns facing men with no such qualms.
In “Light of My Life,” he’s made an mournful and strikingly slow movie, one that allows us to ponder his reasons for making it even while watching it. Maybe it doesn’t atone for the harassment he was accused of, but it’s fascinating to see it that way as we watch his aching, conflicted desperation — a non-violent man living for one purpose, forced to not just explain the difference between “morals and ethics,” but to act on it — sometimes with violence.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Cast: Casey Affleck, Anna Pniowsky, Elisabeth Moss
Credits: Written and directed by Casey Affleck. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:59