“You said it was going to be about the girl,” says Rag (Anna Pniowsky) with accusatory eyes in the opening scene of Light Of My Life. Her father (Casey Affleck) has just told her a bedtime story, supposedly about a girl fox but soon derailed into a story about a boy fox. That accusation – “you said it was going to about the girl” – comes back to haunt Affleck’s directorial debut.
In Light Of My Life, a “female plague” has wiped out half the population. All the women are dead, including Rag’s mother (Elisabeth Moss), so Affleck’s unnamed character is tasked with rearing his daughter. It’s a familiar set-up, a parent-child relationship manoeuvring through a dangerous world, executed brilliantly in John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic The Road and, most recently, Deborah Granik’s Leave No Trace. What these films have in common is a simple narrative arc: we begin from the parent’s perspective and finish from the child’s.
Light Of My Life fails on this fundamental narrative level. Affleck only permits us to see the world from the father’s subjectivity; this is his journey, not Rag’s. Because of this decision, there is no sense of character or narrative growth: the end of the film may as well be its beginning.
As a director, rather than writer, Affleck is more sophisticated. Scenes in the wilderness are atmospheric, captured by cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw. While a decision to use long takes is dragged out, action scenes are well handled with two genuinely tense home invasion set pieces.
And then there are the film’s gender politics, or rather lack thereof. The only reason the female population is killed off is to burden Affleck’s character with heroic purpose, to protect his daughter from men. At the script’s lowest point, a character offers up a “not all men,” but no, in Light Of My Life it is all men who are a threat, bar Affleck.
While Affleck has stated that Light Of My Life was in production well before the MeToo movement, the film reads as a self-flagellating response to sexual misconduct allegations against Affleck from 2010 (which he has denied and settled out of court). Pitched as a story about a girl, Light Of My Life is only concerned with one man’s saviour complex, a patriarch’s journey to safeguard his daughter’s virtue. Everything else is background noise.
Light Of My Life was seen and reviewed at Berlinale 2019.