We’re all either believers or skeptics when it comes to the paranormal, but that doesn’t mean we know which of the two we really are. This is the bottom line of Light from Light, an “anti-horror” drama from director Paul Harrill (Something, Anything), who also wrote the screenplay. His moody new film is essentially a ghost-hunter—or perhaps “ghost-whisperer”— narrative without the YouTube celebrities or game show gimmicks the practice has become known for in recent years. In fact, Light from Light is barely about ghosts at all.
The film begins by introducing Shelia (Marin Ireland), a single mother who has a background as a paranormal investigator in Tennessee but is “between groups.” Her day job, however, couldn’t be farther from her true passion. She’s an associate at an airport car rental desk, vacuuming out vehicles and spending her slow nights wasting time on her phone. Her teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins) has become largely independent and dependable, forcing Shelia to reconsider what might come next for her after he leaves (metaphors, anyone?).
After a recommendation from a priest, Shelia begins to help Richard (Jim Gaffigan), who senses his house might be haunted after the recent passing of his wife. Shelia dives back into the world of ghost-hunting with her son and his friend Lucy (Atheena Frizzell), but the film begins to question what ghosts really are, as well as the unique ways they can be experienced. It also hangs to a subplot involving Owen’s reluctance to engage in a relationship with Lucy, because he can’t justify beginning something that will eventually end and cause him pain.
Though Shelia is the main protagonist, some moviegoers may wonder about Gaffigan, a usually comedic actor. This is not a film that uses him for laughs, but instead draws a deep, unsettling grief that proves his dramatic range. Marin Ireland has been delivering wonderful performances for years, but as lead she is as enchanting as the supposed ghosts she desperately wants to find. Her body language and facial expressions are a mystery unto their own, and though we never seem to get a full picture of her backstory beyond vague asides, there’s an assurance that we do know this person. This person exists, sometimes humbly in the background, putting others first and never asking for much in return.
Light from Light is not loud or energetic. It’s not frightening. It’s simple. It’s quiet and patient. It’s no surprise that this was co-produced by James M. Johnston from A Ghost Story, a film that also takes stabs at rethinking the usual “haunted house” motif (the film was also produced by Elisabeth Moss, Tim Headington, and Theresa Page).
It’s almost become cliché at this point to mention that a film about the supernatural deals with grief, which is why it’s a bit underwhelming to see Light from Light dabble in what is an already shallow pool of themes. But there is merit to how the film never forgets who its lead is (Ireland), and she is clearly dealing with traumas that do ring of something harder to put into words than grief or depression.
A more generous read would be that Harrill is trying to make a different case for how horror can reveal new truths about mental illness. Grief and depression aren’t always tense and thrilling like you may find in Hereditary. They tend to have a slower suspense, one that is atmospheric instead of terrifying. For many viewers, that may just make Light from Light a deeply powerful, invaluable experience.