“Light from Light” is a ghost story without any scares, and maybe not any ghosts. Writer-director Paul Harrill’s quiet and moving drama is instead about the living, and the emotions and memories that the departed leave behind in the world.
Harrill brought his second film to the Wisconsin Film Festival on Monday night (it plays again at 4 p.m. Tuesday at AMC Madison 6), and he’s a big fan of the festival. The festival hosted the world premiere of his first film, “Something, Anything” in 2014, and Harrill never forgot that the theater was mostly full, despite the fact that the Wisconsin-Kentucky Final Four game was going on at the same time.
The Wisconsin Film Festival is only the second to screen the film after its premiere January at the Sundance Film Festival. It stars Marin Ireland as Sheila, a single mom working as a rental car agent in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Sheila also has a side gig as a paranormal investigator, volunteering to help people who think they have supernatural doings going on in their homes. One such person is Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a burly widower whose wife died in a plane crash the year before. Now, the lights are flickering on and off in the farmhouse where Richard used to live with his wife, and his keys seem to show up in different locations than where he thought he left them.
Sheila and her son Owen (Josh Wiggins) bring their supernatural detection equipment (it looks a lot more mundane than the Ghostbusters’ gear) to Richard’s house and set up camp, looking for otherworldly signs. Harrill shoots these scenes as matter-of-factly as possible, with no ominous music or jump scares. But it’s still plenty spooky.
Whether there’s actually in a ghost in the house is in some ways of secondary importance for “Light from Light.” The focus is more on Sheila and Richard, and her desire to provide comfort to a grieving man. “People think that ghosts are scary,” Richard says at one point. “I think it’d be wonderful if they were real.”
“Light From Light” is only 82 minutes long, and allows lots of room for its characters to breathe. Gaffigan, the wildly popular stand-up comedian, proves he can use silence just as effectively as words, and Ireland captures Sheila’s loneliness and wariness with little dialogue or backstory. Her supernatural abilities are neither a blessing or a curse, just a fact of life.
The film builds towards a conclusion that's quietly satisfying, even optimistic, while still leaving a lot of basic questions unanswered. I won't say that it haunts the viewer, but it does cast a spell that lingers long after it's over.
The Wisconsin Film Festival continues through Thursday at AMC Madison 6. Visit 2019.wifilmfest.org for a full schedule.