“Do you want me to tell you a story?” It could be any father, asking their kid if they need to hear a yarn before they drift off to sleep. In this case, we’re looking down at a dad (writer-director Casey Affleck) — we never find out his name, he’s simply Dad — telling his daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky), a long, convoluted fairy tale involving foxes, someone who’s “a futzer, a fiddler,” crowds and a large raft. Eventually, it’s revealed that he’s talking about the biblical parable of Noah and the ark; for some reason, the man who’ll lead animals two-by-two through a natural disaster has an Aussie accent. The girl, who occasionally interrupts him with comments and tween impatience, wants to know if she’s “the only girl of her species.” There’s been a plague, it seems, and the epidemic mostly wiped out females. Mom’s been gone for a while. For some reason, Rag was spared. Don’t worry, Dad tells her. I will take care you. But you have to do what I say. The stakes are too high.
One God’s-eye-perspective shot, two actors, 12 minutes — this is the opening of Light of My Life, and as a stand-alone piece of theater, it’s a breathtaking bit of business. We’ll eventually go out into an unforgiving landscape with these two, but the foundation for Affleck’s film is set in stone at the very beginning. He’s not out to make a typical dystopic movie, though it fits snugly into the starker corners of that genre; the movie will earn many comparisons to Children of Men and the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and those comparisons will be correct. Rather, he’s laying out a parable about parenting, and the sense of helplessness that sits next to the protectiveness of navigating a child through the more treacherous paths of life. It’s him and her against the world. Literally.
The two keep to themselves, living in a tent in the woods and moving on whenever folks stumble across their . Rag (short for Raggedy Ann) is dressed in an androgynous uniform, her hair cut short. Dad refers to her as his “son” in the company of others. She’s been getting bolder as she gets older, however, and is bristling at having to hide in the shadows and relocate every time some nosey dude starts acting skeptical about her boyhood bona fides. They eventually find an abandoned house and settle in, experiencing a moment of domestic normality before a predatory gang shows up. Later, they fall in with a religious group, before danger follows them there as well.
If there’s a certain rinse-repeat feel to the proceedings, it’s because Affleck is more invested in the interactions between these two then anything resembling narrative momentum. There are enough long, near-languid shots of them walking through wooded areas and down roads that you’re reminded he was one half of Gerry‘s onscreen duo, and may have been taking notes. But he has a nice eye for compositions (see: Dad reading a newspaper while we watch, via a kitchen window, as strangers approach in the background), and a great feel for writing awkward paternal talk, especially when he has to fumble his way through a birds-and-bees explainer. The two make a great double act; Pniowsky is especially phenomenal, a young performer who knows how to express vulnerability or curiosity or anger in a blink. There’s a sequence in which Rag stumbles upon a dress and admires herself — she finally gets to experience a notion of female identity for a second. Then Dad freaks out and her illusion is shattered. The way she plays all of it is heartbreaking.
This isn’t Affleck’s first time behind the camera — he was responsible for I’m Still Here, his then–brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s prankumentary about fame and flaming out. This is something completely different: a much more personal, anxiety-ridden story couched in a familiar end-days scenario. And even when Light of My Life feels like it’s straining under the heaviness of its storytelling, there’s something about the way he guides us to an inevitable endgame that suggests the filmmaker knows what he’s doing. It’s not a pretty picture he paints here. But it makes you want Affleck to keep picking up that brush.