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Casey Affleck's first feature as a writer/director in a decade riffs on The Road and Leave No Trace without bringing anything distinctive to the mix
LIGHT OF MY LIFE (Casey Affleck). 119 minutes. Opens Friday (August 9). See listing. Rating: NN
What do you do when your career has been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment? Well, if you’re Casey Affleck, apparently you make a movie about how you’re the best person in the world – a man who’ll do anything to protect his 11-year-old daughter, who also happens to be the last living female on the planet.
I am not entirely sure that this was Affleck’s conscious goal in making Light Of My Life, the spare post-apocalyptic drama he wrote, directed and produced for himself, but the self-aggrandizement comes through in every frame.
In scene after scene, Affleck’s character – never named, just like the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – is always aware, always smart, always right. In scene after scene, he makes sure his daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky, of The Hot Zone and PEN15) is safe, or on her way to safety. He will kill anyone who threatens her. He’s not just a hero, he’s a knight.
Light Of My Life is Affleck’s first feature since his Joaquin Phoenix art project I’m Still Here a decade ago. It’s set in a depopulated America a decade after a plague has killed all human females – except for Rag, who is inexplicably immune. Her father has kept her safe by disguising her as a boy, a deception that’s becoming more difficult to maintain as the girl gets older.
It’s a simple, effective concept, but Affleck doesn’t really develop it the movie’s world, mostly created on location in rural British Columbia, looks convincingly desolate, but no one’s thought too much about what it would be like to live there. Rag and her father aren’t part of whatever society is left they just wander from one place to the next, keeping to themselves.
The plot of the film has precious few developments, being mostly a father-daughter road picture made up of walking, resting and Rag wanting to do something risky only to be stopped by her more cautious father. It’s entirely credible behaviour, but it’s not especially interesting. It doesn’t help that Affleck’s chosen to play Rag’s father as another of his terse, recessive sufferers – it’s something he does very well, but it’s also one we’re very familiar with, holding no surprises.
Affleck’s self-indulgence as a filmmaker is a little much, as well choosing to open the film with a 15-minute scene of his character telling Rags a rambling bedtime story is not, shall we say, the most galvanizing way to kick off a picture. The next hour’s not especially energizing either, but maybe the point of the film is how frustrating and limiting this existence would be.
Or maybe it’s just that Affleck needed to make himself the unambiguous hero of his story, and he really liked John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road and Debra Granik’s more recent father-daughter drama Leave No Trace, so he just riffed on them for a couple of hours without bringing anything really distinctive to the mix. I can’t say for sure.
I will say that Anna Pniowsky, who plays Rag, is very good in her necessarily limited role, conveying the developing independence of a young woman who’s grown strong and smart in spite of the man who raised her, rather than because of him. This will lead to more work. That’s something.