Casey Affleck is less celebrated than his big brother Ben, but he’s one of my favorite actors. His characters tend to be quiet, introspective, and strong. Often they face complicated family issues and the trauma of loss. Recently I came across The Light of My Life, a post-pandemic survival film not only starring Affleck but also written, directed, and produced by him. It’s quiet, tense, and oh-so-satisfying.
In the film, a deadly plague has ravaged the country (perhaps the world). Very few women have survived, and those who remain alive are endangered by the breeding desires of marauding men. “Dad” (he has no other name in the film) is doing his best to protect and provide for his now 11-year-old daughter Rag (Anna Pniowsky) by disguising her as a boy, hiding in the woods, and moving frequently.
The film is reminiscent of such postapocalyptic movies as Children of Men (2006), The Road (2009), and Leave No Trace (2018), but Affleck explores the genre in new ways. The setting is not oppressively authoritarian, à la The Handmaid’s Tale, nor is it utterly anarchic, à la the Mad Max series. Food, fuel, and other necessities are available, and someone is keeping the roads cleared. Scientific institutions are still operating, and scientists are trying to repopulate the earth through artificial gestation. Many homes have electricity and running water. A religious family Dad and Rag encounter act the way Christians ought to act.
A deadly plague has ravaged the country (perhaps the world). Very few women have survived, and those who remain alive are endangered by marauding men.
But retail markets have clearly broken down, and traditional stores are not in business. To get food, Dad needs to go to a warehouse surrounded by barbed wire fencing and present a ration card. It isn’t clear whether he pays for it, or how he has qualified for the card. But not everyone can shop there, as outside the warehouse compound, people are bartering for goods. One can’t help but wonder whether the outcasts refused to be vaccinated. Although the screenplay was written over ten years ago and the film was released in 2019, before the covid crisis, it feels both prescient and prophetic, warning of where we might be five years from now if pandemic frenzy and vaccine mandates don’t settle down soon.
As a single parent, Dad improvises bedtime stories, teaches Rag to read, and in one especially tender and uncomfortable scene, explains puberty to her. In the opening scene, in which he creates an elaborate story loosely related to Noah’s Ark and its theme of catastrophic destruction and redemption, Affleck’s performance is so natural that it doesn’t seem like acting. We see him stutter and stumble as he struggles to make it up on the fly, his words barely staying ahead of his thoughts. I’ve had many of those moments when my granddaughter demands, “Tell me a made-up story!” Making it look so effortless and natural isn’t easy, however; Affleck confessed that the 12-minute uncut scene took eight hours to film because he kept messing up his lines.
To educate Rag, Dad uses the Socratic method, and this leads to many interesting philosophical conversations along their journey. Early on Rag asks Dad to explain the difference between morals and ethics. Dad says, “‘Moral’ is an idea about right and wrong, and ethics are how those morals apply to specific situations. Like, it’s wrong to kill someone, but if he’s gonna kill ten other people, is it OK to kill him?” Ethics will play an important role in this film as Dad does what it takes to keep his daughter safe. He also models for her how to do a wrong thing in the right way when the choice is not between right and wrong but between good and better, or bad and worse.
Although the film was released before the covid crisis, it feels both prescient and prophetic, warning of where we might be five years from now.
Gender is addressed casually but firmly throughout the film. For example, despite the fact that her father has always dressed her as a boy and given her boy-oriented toys and activities to affirm the disguise, Rag wants stories in which the protagonist is a girl. She pouts when the ark story ends up being about Art, the boy fox, instead of Goldie, the girl fox. She also tries — unsuccessfully — to match her father’s masculine gait. It simply doesn’t come naturally to her.
Similarly, when they come across an abandoned house, Rag discovers that a young girl has occupied it before the plague, and all the clothes in the girl’s closet fit her. She delights in trying on the skirts, shoes, and sparkly jacket. Dad shouts at her, aghast, to take them off — it isn’t safe for her to dress like a girl. This scene made me think of the paradox (hypocrisy?) of current gender theory, which asks us to hold two contradictory “truths” at one time: that gender is simply an artificial construct created by social and environmental pressure, and that gender identity is so innate that it sometimes requires surgery to correct a “mistake” nature has made. In this movie, gender-specific choices are clearly innate.
Worrying about body image also seems to be innate, at least according to the film. How is a girl to learn about being a woman when she sees no other women? Rag turns to books. Dad balks when Rag quotes from a magazine that “a woman’s legs are supposed to be half the length of her body,” seemingly worried that her own body doesn’t “measure up.” He asks her, “Are your legs long enough to reach the ground?” and when she nods, he reassures her, “Well then they’re perfect.” It’s a gentle, fatherly reassurance from Affleck, even if her concern doesn’t quite fit the film’s dystopian situation.
Ultimately both discover that Rag is strong, resourceful, and resilient, and that the role of protector and protected, hero and heroine, provider and provided for, have nothing to do with gender: a family is a team, and the roles can be interchangeable.
She delights in trying on the skirts, shoes, and sparkly jacket. Dad shouts at her, aghast, to take them off — it isn’t safe for her to dress like a girl.
The tone of the film is aided by Daniel Hart’s fine soundtrack. At times the music is lush, grand, and melancholy, as when the characters are trekking through the snow under an overwhelmingly broad sky. At other times it is as small and dark as a tightly closed closet, creating tension and suspense through the use of tightly harmonized strings and sustained chords.
The title of the film is a phrase often used to express parental devotion. It is not “you light up my life,” but “you are the light of my life.” Without you, all is dark and cold. Without you, there is no life. It’s a common phrase, reaching as far back as Euripides’ play Andromache, in which a mother thinks she is sacrificing herself so that her son can live. Affleck explains, “In that moment, the mother calls her son ‘the light of her life.’ This movie is about parental devotion and grief and surrender and . . . it felt right.”
I could say the same about the whole film. It feels right — the characters, the situations, the music, and the choices Dad makes. And you can watch it free on Amazon Prime.