Sterling juvenile thespian Anna Pniowsky illuminates Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck’s latest outing as a writer-director, “Light of My Life,” a heartrending survivalist saga positioned in the neighborhood of Debra Granik’s indie darling “Leave No Trace” and Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel “The Road.”
Forced to dress as a boy and go by the name Alex in front of others, 11-year-old Rag (Pniowsky) cautiously travels across inhospitable terrain with her father (Affleck) a decade after a plague eradicated most women — among them her mother (Elisabeth Moss in flashbacks) — and turned those remaining into targets. Laced in Daniel Hart’s forebodingly ethereal score, every decision they make is prone to become perilous.
Bedtime stories and straightforward conversations on morality and death, including a poignant opening long take revisiting the biblical tale of Noah’s ark, exhibit the screenplay’s tremendous emotional depth and nuanced humanity. The father’s reassuring efforts and Rag’s unapologetic inquiries are conveyed with naturalistically sumptuous dialogue. Scenes in stark darkness, where the two ponder the future, outweigh the violent occurrences in apprehension and intensity.
Affleck’s signature mournful pragmatism serves him well in the role of a man seeking to thoughtfully parent and protect his child under unimaginably precarious circumstances. In Pniowsky’s precise matter-of-factness the multihyphenate finds a terrific partner to foster an onscreen father-daughter relationship that operates with total openness. She is a staggering revelation.
In the end, all Affleck’s character wishes is to ensure he prepared Rag for a world that disfavors her gender, but what better indication that his job as caretaker succeeded in raising an empowered and self-sufficient young girl than realizing the “love adventure” they are on has always been her story to navigate and overcome with or without him.
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 9, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Playhouse 7