Best of 2019: Light From Light Digs Deep to Uncover Ghosts

Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan in Light From Light
Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan appear in Light From Light by Paul Harrill. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Light From Light is the second entry in our series of the Best Southern Movies of 2019. Last week we reviewed The Peanut Butter Falcon, and over the next couple weeks we will review two more works released in 2019 that best understand the South.

By Reid Ramsey

We’re all just carrying ghosts. Or such is the premise of Paul Harrill’s Tennessee-set paranormal investigations drama Light From Light

Shelia (Marin Ireland) is a single mom, a car rental salesperson, and a ghost hunter. She eventually admits that her understanding of the spiritual realm stems from her childhood as a prophetic dream interpreter. While her career as a paranormal expert should firmly plant Shelia into the camp of “ghosts are real,” she comes across as a grownup who stumbled into a career based on what her family members said was her gift. She is skeptical of her own talents, but has a desperate need to help people. When Richard (Jim Gaffigan) comes to her and claims to be haunted by his recently-deceased wife, Shelia knows she will do everything in her power to help him find some answers.

While Shelia carries the ghosts of her childhood, the memories of Richard’s wife and marriage completely enshroud who he is now. Scenes show Richard peacefully existing at work in the beautiful Smoky Mountains, yet he’s never able to detach from the tragedy that always looms over him. His wife died in a private plane crash in the Smokies a year earlier. She had been traveling, unbeknownst to Richard, with her lover who also died in the crash. It’s not only the tragedy of the death that will haunt Richard’s thoughts day-in and day-out, it’s the circumstances surrounding her death and the truth that he will never be able to talk to her about the affair. With this weighty tragedy, it should come as no surprise that the house they once shared together now feels haunted.

The remaining characters are Shelia’s teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins) and his friend and love interest Lucy (Atheena Frizzell). Their relationship is only starting to bloom, but whether it lasts or not it will carry into their lives as they develop and begin to see the world outside of their high school. If even the most benign moments of these characters’ lives will follow them around like ghosts, then why do they desire experience in the first place?

It’s not a uniquely southern quality to feel haunted by a personal past, but the collective ghosts at the soul of Light From Light reflect traits that are quite southern. A region haunted by historical and present-day ghosts. Even those who don’t have ancestors from the region, feel the weight of this history. People always react differently to ghosts. Some wholly deny their existence, others try to better understand them. 

Shelia’s understanding of the supernatural doesn’t come only from a gift given to her as a child, but comes mostly from a desire to empathize with others. She may have never met Richard’s wife while she was living; but she believes that if her ghost is living in the house, she will be able to communicate with her. She can see Richard’s pain and understand his story. Shelia doesn’t have to know the person to see the complicated impact she had on him while she was living. 

Southerners should be constantly grappling with a complicated collective past. When Richard talks about his wife, it’s clear in his eyes that she brought him a tremendous amount of joy and life, even if their relationship ended in betrayal. His years with her are not worthless because of it, but he’ll spend the rest of his life reckoning with her role in his life. 

Similarly, Owen confesses to his mom that he’s not sure he should date Lucy because he doesn’t know if he’ll marry her. This fear of making the wrong decision, likely coming from the adults he sees around him, will haunt every decision Owen makes. He’ll spend a lifetime anxiously waiting to screw up as badly as those around him and his apprehension may keep him from gathering more ghosts along the way, but it will linger with him for his whole life.

Light From Light is a quiet movie. Set in East Tennessee (the greatest region on earth, sorry if this offends), Harrill spends time luxuriating in the beauty of the mountains while also allowing the landscape to reflect the pain of our characters. This juxtaposition is especially potent when Richard and Shelia hike to the location of the plane crash and spend a minute gazing at the carnage that has become integrated into the greenery. This scene, one of the film’s best, reinforces the themes of the horror that can coexist with beauty. 

In a nutshell, horror and beauty coexisting is all Light From Light is about. In the movie’s final, jaw-dropping moment it is the simple turning of a page that horrify and inspire. Turning a page. Starting the next chapter. Life isn’t at all about forgetting or rewriting the past, but it is definitely about moving on to what’s next.

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