Nothing much happens in “Light from Light,” an East Tennessee character study bathed in mourning cloaked in quiet.
The lead characters meet because she’s an amateur ghost hunter, with lifelong intuitions, and he’s a grieving widower who wonders if his late wife is haunting the house she grew up in. But it’s not really about that. It still makes an interesting jumping-off point for a search for closure and new beginnings, none of which play out in conventional ways.
We hear Sheila’s story in a community radio interview. It started in childhood when “these dreams I had turned out to be prophetic” she says. Sheila, played by Marin Ireland (“Homeland,” “Hell or High Water”), is soft-spoken and unassuming. That makes her seem more credible.
What did she do with this “gift?”
“I had questions. Just questions.”
These days, she supports herself and her teen son (Josh Wiggins) running a rent-a-car counter at the Knoxville airport. But a priest (David Cale) heard the interview, and he approaches her. There’s a local man she might be able to help.
Jim Gaffigan plays Richard, a fish hatchery worker who would seem depressed even if he hadn’t added “haunted” to his demeanor. He’s wondering if these senses that someone’s been taking hold of his arm are the spirit of his late wife Susanne.
The question everybody around Sheila asks, and has to answer him or herself, is “Do you believe in ghosts?” Sheila’s lack of commitment to her own answer, and avoidance of the hard-sell are her best selling points. Sure, she’ll help — check out the remote old house where Susanne grew up when it’s good and dark.
What’ll this cost?
“I don’t charge. It just makes this more complicated.”
She just needs some sort of informal insurance waiver, because who knows what might happen? And she’ll need to rustle up some gear, and some help.
Sheila may be looking to give Richard some closure, but she’s plainly looking for a little herself. She’s no longer with “her group” of ghostbusters. She has to sit in on a paid seminar to get access the temperature probes and CCTV cameras for a night of ghost hunting.
Owen (Wiggins) and Lucy (Atheena Frizzell) are helping Sheila in her ghost hunt, and might be an item, prom dates even. But she’s about to head off to college, and he’s so ethical he asks “What’s the point?”
He’s following mom’s softly sold advice — “Don’t fall in love with sombody just because they treat you nice.”
Lucy and Owen’s mutual teenage concern is attraction, but he’s facing a circumscribed future, one he hasn’t worked out yet.
East Tennessee filmmaker Paul Harrill (“Something, Anything”) builds his film on soft-spoken conversations, quietly-voiced disagreements and — almost as an afterthought, suspense.
Are they actually going to encounter the supernatural?
Sheila’s methodical routine hangs on exploring the silence of the house by flashlight, and that’s as effective a scene-setter for ghostly encounters as anything the horror movie universe serves up, pretty much on a weekly basis.
“Is anyone here? If you’d like to communicate, let yourself be known.”
Ireland’s understated performance, semi-skeptical, faintly credulous and luminescent with empathy, anchors “Light from Light.” It’s acting that teaches us not to expect too much, especially anything conventional.
It doesn’t take much for something to feel “extraordinary” under these conditions.
Gaffigan is mainly a reactor here, a hurting but thoughtful man who picks up a book after stocking a stream with trout.
No one so much as attempts an East Tennessee drawl, which I know well. Perhaps that “Winter’s Bone” touch would have made the ghost believing and ghost sensing subtexts quaint, Southern superstitions. But snippets of scenery aside, nothing grounds a movie in a place like accents.
“Light from Light” still feels like film firmly footed in reality, so much so that the few truly suspenseful moments seem almost epic in scope when they couldn’t be more intimate. It’s an exercise in tone and performance that rewards the viewer in ways you can’t quite articulate, but sense nevertheless.
Cast: Marin Ireland, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Wiggins, Atheena Frizzell.
Credits: Written and directed by Paul Harrill. A Grasshopper Film release.
Running time: 1:24