Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Movie Review: Light of My Life

Light of My Life *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Casey Affleck.
Written by: Casey Affleck.
Starring: Casey Affleck (Dad), Anna Pniowsky (Rag), Elisabeth Moss (Mom), Tom Bower (Tom), Hrothgar Mathews (Calvin), Timothy Webber (Lemmy).
I don’t tend to talk about an artist’s personal life in reviews – although my thoughts on separating the artist from the art have grown more complicated over the years, in general, that is what I try to do. Sometimes though, the artist’s art makes it impossible to ignore their past – like the case of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which featured a rape scene, but was more about its effect on the men in the woman’s life, not long after he was hit again with his past rape charge (for which he was acquitted I will say) came to light. Casey Affleck has had his own #MeToo moment come to light – during his Oscar campaign for Manchester by the Sea (which he ultimately won), when a lawsuit filed by several women who worked on his first film as a director – the strange Joaquin Phoenix quasi-documentary I’m Still Here was brought back into the publics’ conscious – and hasn’t really left since whenever Affleck comes up. I was of two minds at the time – the first being that Affleck may well be a creep and the second that his performance in Manchester by the Sea is still one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. When added to his work in all sorts of films – from Gone Baby Gone to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to A Ghost Story to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and many others, Affleck is one of the best actors around right now. That doesn’t mean he is innocent – or we should forgive – the sins of his past. The two are there, together, for all to see.
I bring all this up because the new film that Affleck wrote, directed and stars in – Light of My Life – is a post-apocalyptic, father-daughter story about a world in which all the women (except the daughter) have been killed off by some sort of plague. Some immediately used the premise of the movie to bash Affleck for his past. But watching the film, I got the feeling that the film may have been an attempt on his part to work through his own complicated feelings about men’s treatment of women – including his own. The result isn’t always pretty – and although the film does cast him as somewhat of a savior of women, which will rub people the wrong way (not unjustly) – I do think the films overall message is more complicated.
The film opens with a very long scene in which Dad (Affleck) and his daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky) lay in their sleeping bags, side by side, and talk. She’s getting a little older now – probably around 11 – but still enjoys hearing her dad makeup stories – which he does in a long one about a boy and a girl fox. It’s about the girl fox he assures her, but after a while, she has to interject – somewhat the boy fox has taken over the story. It’s one of several such long sequences in the film – where the two will talk, often the real subject of their conversations go unspoken. He is trying to protect her – and has done a good job all these years since the plague (which happened when Rag was a baby) – that wiped out the rest of woman kind. He has disguised Rag as a boy for all these years – and it’s worked so far. But it won’t work for much longer. Men are already doing double takes with Rag. If being a woman is already a hellscape, dealing with lots of asshole men, it’s going to be even worse when you’re the only woman in the world.
The inevitability is never really discussed openly in Light of My Life – but it’s there in every scene. It’s there when Dad gets angry at Rag for taking off her hat, or dressing in the found girls clothes in an abandoned house. That terror grows in scenes when men start to descend on them. The film calls to mind other survival films of fathers and their children – Leave No Trace or The Road for instance – except this time the urgency is even more deeply felt, as is dad’s paranoia. He is trying to protect Rag’s innocence for as long as possible – and time is running out.
Affleck is, as always, great in the film. He has a way of delivering his dialogue that feels natural – that feels like someone struggling to find the right words, and failing as often as he succeeds. Anna Pniowsky is perhaps even better as Rag – she is smarter than her dad thinks she is, knows more than he thinks she does. She is a tough as nails Tomboy – unafraid to call out her dad if need be. She is more confident and strong than her dad – at least for now.
I do kind of feel that Affleck doesn’t really know where to take the story – and certainly not how to end it. The end of the film could be described as an action sequence – as Affleck has to fend out a group of men who have tracked them down, and want Rag. The sequence is well-directed by Affleck – who doesn’t suddenly become a superhero or anything, and has to slowly, methodically fight his way through – taking almost as much as he dishes out. Affleck ends the film as he should – reframing the story to be sure we know who the protagonist is, and how she is ready to take on the world. But he also ends it there because, well, any realistic extension of this storyline probably isn’t going to end well.
For me, it was impossible to see this film and not think of the allegations against Affleck – and that the film was in some way a response to them, even if – as he insists – he wrote the movie long before the allegations, and certainly before #MeToo (although he made it now – and that says something as well). But the film isn’t self-pitying, and it isn’t a defense of himself. It’s a film searching in its own perhaps too earnest way to explain why men treat women the way they do – and about who gets to tell the story,

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