After the first ten minutes of Casey Affleck’s astounding Light of My Life (which he directed, wrote, produced, and stars in), you may find yourself cocking your head to the side or raise an eyebrow in quizzical wonder. Affleck begins the film with a lengthy storytelling moment between an unnamed father and his daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky). The scruffy dad (Affleck) is lying on a sleeping bag next to the equally unkempt kid in a dank tent, and he’s telling her a Noah’s Ark-inspired tale, which seems innocuous at the time but quickly comes to resonate more as the film progresses.
The scene is a decidedly unconventional choice for the exposition of a film, offering little in the way of clarification as to who or what we’re looking at, but it’s so well filmed and acted that you can’t help but keep glued. Gradually we come to understand the world they live in—a plague wiped out 99% of the female population ten years earlier, and father and daughter were among the (un)lucky survivors. Rag was a newborn at the time and now has to go through life disguised as a little boy to avoid suspicion and, as we’re led to believe, much worse.
Together, Rag and her dad wander the largely cold, damp landscape (the film was shot on location in the forests of British Columbia), occasionally wandering into town for supplies but otherwise keeping to themselves. At one point they discover an abandoned home and the prospect of a few days’ respite, but the father insists they keep moving. Though he eventually softens, it’s not before outfitting the house with booby traps, escape routes, and safe rooms.
Affleck never provides an explicit backstory—the devastating plague is referenced only in old newspaper clippings and in brief flashbacks featuring Elisabeth Moss as the girl’s mother—but we’re given enough to get by. That mystery, along with the film’s unrelenting tension, drive Light of My Life forward, giving it the distinct air of director John Hillcoat’s excellent (and almost identically plotted) 2009 adaptation of novelist Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Largely a character study, Light of My Life gives both Affleck and Pniowsky a chance to flex their acting muscles (which they do brilliantly) while also allowing Affleck to further display his prowess as a legitimate emerging director. (His only other effort so far has been 2010’s I’m Still Here, the ill-fated mockumentary starring Joaquin Phoenix.) Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and composer Daniel Hart also make their mark on the proceedings, giving the film its arresting look and atmosphere.
Full of long, quiet moments and then thrown off-kilter by a couple of terrifying survivalist scenes, Light of My Life is one of those sneaky-good cerebral films—the kind that isn’t for everyone and that comes and goes with barely a whisper but, for those lucky enough to hear it, winds up being among the best and most rewarding experiences of the cinema year.