This review contains mild spoilers.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be remarkable for a film to have an exceptional opening scene, but Light from Light shows how rare it is. Right out of the gate, the film expertly stages the entire piece in tone and intent. The scene is impeccably structured and showcases the protagonist’s journey with a skilled deep-dive into her background. The strength of its introduction makes you believe.
As a child, Shelia (Marin Ireland) once had a dream that could be interpreted as prophetic and otherworldly or merely coincidental, depending on one’s individual proclivities towards such things. But it was deemed prophetic for her, turning little Shelia be something of a psychic and became a small town celebrity for a time. People relied on her for guidance and comfort, anxiously awaiting to hear her most recent dream. But once her dreams ceased to foretell anything at all, her community quickly lost interest in her. A fact that, while not explicit, visibly still pains 40-something Shelia in the present day as she’s retelling the incident in a radio interview. The young girl thought herself to be special, in the kind of way that’s reflected in everyone else’s behavior towards her, until one day she wasn’t. Though Shelia grew up to be a small-time paranormal investigator, her belief in both the supernatural and herself never really recovered.
Sheila is instantly empathetic, and the film that follows the opening scene never exploits that. She’s almost permanently wounded, though not bitter, and moves through the world with a sense of resignation less indicative of depression than a sincere belief in one’s own inconsequentiality. A financially struggling single mother, Shelia had to forfeit her position with her ghost hunting team because she couldn’t afford the dues. However, when she takes on a freelance case with a widower, Richard (Jim Gaffigan), she does so for free. It’s a development that at once checks out and feels a little superfluous, but Shelia’s altruism is the logical extension of her outlook on life. Nothing really matters, including money.
The concept of paranormal investigation is usually relegated to campy horror, but the fact that it’s been a part of popular culture for fifteen years and is rarely used as a device of high drama is rather surprising. Light from Light rightfully finds the metaphor in the practice: of course it’s not about proving ghosts exists more than it’s about providing consolation for the pained and living. It’s a salve for even the irreligious (or especially for them); a metaphysical exercise to sooth your aching soul. Shelia’s involvement in ghost hunting is threefold: she wants to help people, she longs for confirmation of a divine existence, and she needs the fix of hopeful possibility.
It’s that fix that fuels the paranormal investigation field, both for those who participate and those who watch it. That fix keeps even the Light from Light film watcher on high alert, keenly searching every corner of a room for movement or a misplaced item. When it doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed. When it does, you’re thrilled. For a moment.
Because when the film is over, the jolt of the thrill dissolves and inevitably feels empty. Because the act of seeing releases the narrative tension. Because now there is proof and proof is not nearly as exciting as the possibility of it, or the tease of not obtaining it. Something is now definitive where once it was delightfully opaque. Shelia is relieved at having seen, but why? Is it merely because she’s proven to herself the very thing for which her community rejected her as a child? She now has an answer, but what will the answer solve? Having seen absolves Shelia of finding purpose within herself. Of doing the work of living.
Light from Light worked with a light and careful hand to craft a sense of existential ennui that’s hard to do without becoming overbearing. It develops its world and really lives in it, full of characters together but alone, drifting through whatever we’re supposed to be doing here. It’s not aimless, even if its characters seem like it. Its climax doesn’t negate the rest of the movie, but it’d be something more profound without it: What do we owe to ourselves? Where does hope come from if not from above? How do we keep going, when the fix is so temporary?