A Bit of Light (Quiver Distribution, NR)

Ray Winstone and Anna Paquin in A Bit of Light.

Ella (Anna Paquin) is an alcoholic. Closing in on 40, she’s forced to move back home with her well-meaning father Alan (Ray Winstone), sleeping in the bright pink bunkbeds that used to be occupied by her daughters when they would visit, before a couple of terrifying incidents on her way to rock bottom caused her to lose custody to her ex-husband Joseph (Youssef Kerkour) and his new wife Bethan (Pippa Bennett-Warner). Ella has successfully quit drinking but bristles at attending AA meetings, causing friction with her headstrong father, while she battles with her skeptical ex to get visitation. Wracked with guilt, she spends her afternoons grieving at the nearby park where she used to take her girls when she makes an unexpected connection with Neil (newcomer Luca Hogan), a 13-year-old boy with a questionably lax parental situation who sees through Ella’s loud proclamations that she’s a terrible person and offers empathy just when she needs it most. But 40-year-old women aren’t supposed to be friends with 13-year-old strangers, causing everyone in Ella’s life to wonder if she’s lost it just as she’s starting to feel like she might be able to get “it” back.

A recovering alcoholic stumbling their way to getting their life back together is a well-worn story, and the wise-beyond-their-years kid that teaches the adult a lesson in living life is, of course, its own cliché. But director Stephen Moyer and writer Rebecca Callard (adapting her own play) keep these old ideas from seeming stale by painting their plot with an impressionist’s touch. The dialogue is allergic to easy exposition—pre-existing relationships and huge portions of backstory are implied rather than explained, characters show their emotions through their actions rather than their words, and several seemingly load-bearing plot points are never completely clarified. Which isn’t to say that the plot is hard to follow—far from it. But Moyer and Callard refuse to hold your hand to walk you through it, and that avoidance of over-explanation and obvious A-to-B-to-C plot mechanics leads to a story that feels more honest in its execution. In real life, we don’t stop to explain back story or tell people how we’re feeling and why, either. We are where we are and we feel how we feel, and we move forward. That’s how this movie feels.

The way Moyer and cinematographer Peter Allibone present their story visually is as unconventional as the way it’s told verbally. This is a film that’s primarily just people talking to each other and would seem to lend itself to simple blockings, yet the shots are consistently framed in slightly unusual ways (an odd angle, a closer shot than expected, interesting framing of the subjects by the objects in the room) that are strikingly eye-pleasing. It feels like the kind of film you could use in a film studies class, pouring over each shot to dissect the filmmaker’s choices and intended symbolism. Moyer and Allibone fortunately don’t overplay their hand by being too fancy just because they can, only really pushing the envelope for the flashbacks to the drunken behavior that caused Ella to lose her kids, diving into a sort of heightened realism as we see these fractured scenes from Ella’s perspective while also seeing present-day Ella wandering through them, sad and disgusted at her own actions. As in the rest of the film, what it is she did is strongly implied rather than outright shown, but it’s clear she screwed up big.

The director, Stephen Moyer, is better known as an actor—he currently stars in the new Paramount+ series Sexy Beast, but his most pertinent credit here is True Blood, the long-running HBO series he starred in alongside Paquin. Not only did he spend eight seasons acting across from her, he also directed Paquin in the 2018 film The Parting Glass and in two episodes of the 2019-20 British TV series Flack. Given their ample shared history, it’s probably no surprise that they work excellently together, but he really captured a phenomenal lead performance from her this time out. Paquin’s Ella is by turns sad and broken and frustrated and defiant and aching, so aching, for any kind of human connection, and Paquin captures every up and down of her emotional rollercoaster without a single false note. Winstone is every bit her match, an actor known for playing intimidating heavies asked to play a much softer role and thoroughly embodying the doting teddy bear of a dad on the razor’s edge of exasperation. Hogan also impresses as Neil, adding much needed levity to what could otherwise have been a pretty dour movie and believably serving as the youngest voice in the room that is also inexplicably the only one who understands what’s going on.

The impressionistic storytelling stays put to the end, resulting in an ending that’s anything but definitive. Yet that ambiguity feels earned, an honest portrayal of the often long and winding road to recovery. | Jason Green

A Bit of Light opens in theaters, on demand, and via digital rental on April 5th.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *