Savina Petkova on Casey Affleck’s ‘Light of My Life‘ (2019)
A father tells his daughter a bedtime story, spun from the Biblical Flood, in which the beautiful household of two anthropomorphic foxes is destroyed by the water. An inquisitive daughter ponders on the pairing two animals of the same kind, asking “Am I the only girl of my species?”
The stories we tell our children before they go to sleep are closer to dreams than to language since myths are grounding stories that allegorically link the distant past to the present with the transformative power of profound knowledge. Passed from one generation to another, the tale of Noah’s Ark seems archetypal for heteronormative civilisation, as in “male and female mate” to make the future possible. Within this normalising tendency, Casey Affleck’s Light of My Life interrogates the role of gender and parenthood, elevated to a moving exploration of family.
In a dystopian world, where a fatal “QTB” virus has wiped away all the female population, an emotionally adept father (Affleck) goes to extremes to protect his eleven-year-old daughter Rag (hearty Anna Pniowsky) from the dangers of the world. Reminiscent of Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (especially with Elizabeth Moss starring as the mother) in its feminist nuances, Light of My Life accentuates the role of female agency in a time of despair and moral corruption. While the filmic world is bursting with hatred and dick-measuring, it is made clear that a world without women is lost beyond repair.
Affleck and Pniowsky’s duo performance is the emotional catalyst that elevates this fiction debut into a heartfelt masterpiece. Constructing father and daughter as mirror images, the story traces a shared life on the run, a life averse to settling. In fact, the strong bond between the protagonists is based on an intellectual understanding — while Dad may overreact and give orders in a militaristic manner, he also takes the time to explain and rationalise his communicational mistakes. A portrayal of a father who is understanding, deeply devoted, while also petrified by the impossibility of raising a daughter in a time of gender exception, contributes to a living-and-breathing character depiction.
Carefully overcoming one’s emotional constipation and (male) inability to cope with talks on sexual maturation, menstruation, or even sex education, Light of My Life bows down to unknowability at the behest of respect and love that is, after all, the best parent material. As in a long sequence, Dad stutters and mutters under his breath, clumsily interchanging between scientific and simplistic explanations of how children come into this world. Utterly devoid of male ego, his monologue leaves tear-jerking punctures in the character’s development, when he concludes that “women balance the world”, which is in an irreparably chaotic state.
Light is, indeed, one of the film’s main characters, and Adam Arkapaw’s (The Light Between Oceans, Macbeth) cinematography testifies to the fact. Outdoor sequences were shot on location in British Columbia’s provincial parks, reflecting the natural light in rain-soaked forests and snowy fields alike. Indoor episodes shot in desolate houses are made picturesque by the glittering sun on the character’s unkempt faces that often emits a welcoming glow. The past remains bracketed, revealed only by brief snippets of retrospection: pregnancy, birth, baby years, death. Puncturing the narrative with such touching remnants sheds the veil of darkness over the present, saturating the father-daughter relationship with the mother’s presence.
Without having a place to call home, the refugee family exhibit disjointed reactions when facing a stable environment. When Dad and Rag temporarily reside in a house, the notion of sanctuary suddenly appears sharply different to each of them: while the father prefers to sleep in his tent within a bedroom, Rag finds a girl’s closet with clothes of her size. In her insistence to express her gender sits a reluctance to anonymity, and an insistence of self-assertion (despite a hostile world) that overpowers her father’s paranoiac aegis.
The film takes a bold stance on ethical issues, starting off with a conversation about the differences between morals and ethics. By the end of it, the question of childhood purity is long gone, but not because of the father’s personal guilt. The reason lies in self-determination, as the girl makes a claim of her own independence. “Dad, let me go”, she shouts as they both make a narrow escape from their chasers, her persuasive tone revealing the voice of a new generation (of women?), to which the father can only obey. Proving to be a lot more than a simple “mea culpa” for Casey Affleck, Light of My Life is both a coming of age and letting go story, deeply imbued with storytelling as a life-saving mechanism. The film offers a deep cut into male insecurities which, once admitted, can be put to rest by a woman’s loving hand.
Light of my Life premiered as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival.