In the post-apocalyptic drama Light of My Life, Oscar winner Casey Affleck (as an actor in Manchester by the Sea) steps behind the camera for the first time since teaming up with Joaquin Phoenix a decade ago to make the music mockumentary I’m Still Here. His second film is a minimalist take that hangs firmly on the natural connection of its two main characters and its effectively bleak atmosphere.
Reminiscent of director John Hillcoat’s depressing 2009 drama The Road — although it’s doubtful any scene can be as grim as watching a father teach his son how to commit suicide — and last year’s powerful and emotionally complex drama Leave No Trace, Light of My Life is a slow-burning film that packs a similar punch.
Affleck stars as Caleb, a father surviving in the solitude of the wilderness with his young daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky), whom he disguises as a boy. His actions come after a global plague has decimated the majority of the female population, including his wife (Elizabeth Moss), who dies when Rag is an infant. He refers to Rag as his son whenever they stumble across someone amid their directionless journey.
Hoping to stay invisible on the fringes of the dystopic society, Caleb is conscious of the danger Rag is in if anyone discovers her true identity, although Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay, steers clear of spelling it out. While he navigates some familiar territory, that takes nothing away from the father-daughter rapport he and Pniowsky share — a bond viewers will likely feel invested in as the narrative moves forward and the risk that they will be discovered increases.
Light of My Life feels the most alive during the seemingly calm scenes where we understand the intense reality that Caleb and Rag face. He’s willing to do whatever he must to prevent anything bad from happening to his daughter. The sense of dread that permeates the film never lets up, much as in Hillcoat’s The Road. Affleck’s ability to keep the nervous, albeit silent, energy consistent is an impressive feat.
Along with Affleck’s compassionate performance, what Pniowsky delivers as a curious 11-year-old is just as incredible. Like actors Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace, Caleb and Rag’s loving relationship is one of the most convincing pairings to hit theaters this year. Affleck has created an intimate film — one that speak on parental responsibility and the great lengths to which a father would go to protect his child.