At most film festivals — and especially at Sundance — attendees trip over themselves to get into the most buzzed-about (and often overhyped) screenings. Happily, this leaves more space for film fans hoping to find some under-the-radar discoveries. “Light from Light” feels like a familiar festival indie in its quirky setup and modest production values. But it also boasts a rare, quiet honesty, and a lead performance from Marin Ireland that’ll haunt you for days.
Haunting is, in fact, the name of the game here, since Ireland’s Shelia is a bit of a ghost hunter. She’s ambivalent about it, as she seems to be about a lot of things. But her uncertainty is reasonable, given how overwhelmed she is as a single mom trying to raise a teenage son while working full-time at a soul-crushing car rental service.
Still, when she gets a call from the recently-widowed Richard (Jim Gaffigan), she’s intrigued. He heard her mention her clairvoyant gift on the radio and wants her help after his wife’s sudden death. After some hesitation she agrees to take the case, thanks to the urging of her son, Owen (Josh Wiggins, “Max”) and Owen’s crush, Lucy (Atheena Frizzell, “Never Goin’ Back”). The three of them set up their equipment in Richard’s Tennessee farmhouse, hoping to confirm whether his flickering lights and creaky floors represent a spectral presence.
And … that’s it, really. The offbeat structure almost feels like an excuse to get our attention, so that writer-director Paul Harrill (“Something, Anything”) can focus on those who travel through life like ghosts themselves. This isn’t a horror film, or a thriller, or even much of a romance. It’s just a small, nicely-observed study of very ordinary people, who take an unusual approach to their very ordinary experiences. This might be the first haunted house movie in which the ghost is pretty much a third wheel.
But don’t let the film’s quiet intimacy deter you; that’s the reason to see it. And Harrill’s subtle style is beautifully reflected in the performances. Ireland is the sort of talented regular who’s long been just a single role away from true stardom. She works constantly and always makes an impact, but it’s usually on stage (“reasons to be pretty”) or in someone else’s show (“Sneaky Pete”) or movie (“Glass Chin”). She proves here that she deserves more of her own projects, earning every close-up, long take, and extended monologue Harrill favors.
There are moments, here and there, when her character feels like a screenwriter construct. Would a struggling single parent really refuse payment for her hard work, for example, as Shelia so nobly does? That said, Ireland’s fully committed performance captures her heartbreaks, anxieties, and sheer exhaustion as well as her instinctual kindness.
It also helps that Ireland has solid support from the rest of the cast. Gaffigan turns off his comic side entirely, to tap into his character’s pain with an empathetic and moving restraint. He’s so still that he often seems to meld into the well-chosen rural setting, which aptly complements the characters’ emotional isolation.
One jarring note is the insistently precious score by Adam Granduciel and Jon Natchez, which feels like such an indie-film cliché it threatens to undermine Harrill’s intentions. And the script could have used another pass to flesh things out at least a little further. But what’s most special about these characters is that there’s nothing special about them — other than, of course, their thoughtfully rendered and relatable humanity.
It’s always a challenge for such an intimate project to thrive on its own in the big bad world. A movie this modest requires patience and generosity and a rejection of expectations. So no, it’s not a high-concept buzz title destined to leave the festival with a record-breaking deal. But it is a gem likely to stay with anyone smart enough to seek it out.