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The Last Light (2013)
Tonight's Short Presentation

THE LAST LIGHT (2013)

Starring: Telisa Steen, Sarah Dennis, Elora Coble, Randall Dai, Pearl Klein, Danika Collins

Written By: Persephone Vandegrift Directed By: Jennifer Cummins

See It Here: (currently making festival runs)


The Story

Once upon a time, the Kingston family was happy.  Little Becca (Elora Coble) lived the carefree existence of a young girl under the watchful eyes of her loving older sister, Hannah (Sarah Dennis), and her adoring mother, Karen (Telisa Steen).  But watchful eyes can blink, and there was something sinister that they missed… and that something sinister cost Becca her life.  The police quickly found their culprit, but Hannah and Karen can’t help but feel that they share the burden of responsibility.  Can they find a way out of their self-imposed prisons of guilt… perhaps with a little help from a broken dollhouse?


The Rundown

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PROVOLONE.

Sweet but semi-sharp, thoughtful.

.


Pairs Well With...

SYRAH.

Dark in and of itself, and full… but somehow it makes one lighter.

.


“How will they find their way home?”


My first encounter with The Last Light happened well before it was put to film.  A contest was being held (well over a year ago, by my count), and a number of short subject screenplays were being presented on a website for public judgment and comment.  A friend suggested that I have a look, and the screenplay that I read that day was Persephone Vandegrift’s The Last Light.

I found the story to be interesting and well written, and I was particularly impressed with how it didn’t end up going in the direction that I first would have anticipated.  The comments I left were favorable, and I remember thinking how interesting it would be to see it put to film, even as I calculated the odds of that happening to be low.  (This wasn’t an indictment against the screenplay; it’s just how these things tend to go.  The number of unfilmed scripts far exceeds those that actually make it onto the screen, and quality rarely has much to do with the process of elimination.)

Flash forward a considerable amount of time, and suddenly social media made me aware that The Last Light had just gotten made.  (Its funding campaign may very well be the only one coming out of this particular community that I managed to miss being aware of in the past twelve months.)  Very soon after, I was invited to see it, and so, here we are.

The Last Light begins with a beautiful opening credit sequence that centers on the simple act of two girls and their mother having fun with a swing set.  The audio and the (deliberately) too-bright quality of the sequence are the audience’s cue that this is a flashback, and it’s an extremely effective way to start the story off.  First, it gives the audience a clear idea of just how close – and how happy – this family is.  Second, since it’s readily apparent that this is a flashback, it sets the audience up for the darkness to follow.

But that darkness is not of the horror or suspense thriller variety (even though it would have been very easy to take this tale in either direction).  Instead, it is the very real darkness of genuine human grief, the survivor’s guilt that regular, everyday people experience when loved ones pass on, especially under terrible circumstances.  It is the fact that The Last Light chooses to focus on the grief instead of on those terrible circumstances that gives this story its power.  Yes, the horrible act needs to be addressed, but give too much attention to that, and this becomes just another run-of-the-mill tale of human tragedy.  (Sad that such a thing can be considered run-of-the-mill nowadays, isn’t it?)

It’s a tightrope that the cast and crew walk reasonably well… with just a couple of slips along the way.

None of those slips come from the cast.  One of the best things one can ever say about a performance is that it doesn’t look like acting because it comes across so naturalistically that it feels like looking in on real life, and that is true of all of the major players here.  Top marks go to Sarah Dennis, who does an outstanding job in what I consider to be the film’s most difficult role: that of older sister Hannah.  Telisa Steen isn’t far behind as the grieving mother, especially given the additional challenge of having to play a distinctively different take on the same character during the flashback sequences.  (Kudos to the makeup crew for creating a marked physical difference there, as well.)

I was very pleased to learn that Catherine Grealish had gotten the nod to do the music; I’ve been impressed with everything of hers that I’ve heard thus far, and The Last Light continues that streak of successes.  This is a story that depends absolutely on atmosphere and emotion, and the score never fails to provide that atmosphere and to accentuate whatever emotion holds sway over the characters on screen at any given moment.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this film being as effective without Grealish’s score behind it.

This brings us to the director’s chair.  Though I found The Last Light to be wonderfully effective as a bare screenplay, the fact is that the written word and the filmed word are two entirely different things, even if they come from the same page.  (Though to be fair, I suspect there were some alterations between the draft I read and the one that was filmed, but that may be a trick of my memory.)  The moment this story gets put in front of a camera, it lives or dies as a director’s film; there are just too many minute details to deal with and too many fine lines to be walked for it to be anything else.  It would be a daunting task for anyone on any budget; here, it is the task of first time director Jennifer Cummins on a very tiny budget.  It’s a task she handles very well overall, keeping the focus on the people and being very careful with her use of ghost effects when our grieving characters are having what may or may not be minor hallucinations.  It is the atmosphere created by Cummins that the aforementioned score capitalizes on, and that atmosphere combined with Persephone Vandegrift’s story and the wonderful performances by the cast make The Last Light a winner.

This isn’t to say that it’s perfect.  Given a fourteen and a half minute movie, the nefarious character that shows up during the flashbacks is going to be obvious by default, but as I watched, I felt like he was being presented with a heavier selling hand than was necessary.  (Indeed, I recall from my long ago screenplay reading a mild ambiguity about him at first, even though I knew better.)  But since, as noted, “obvious bad guy is obvious,” this is hardly a damnable sin.  The only other complaint I have about the movie is that the ending happens too quickly (blink once and you’ll still see it; blink three times, though…); I’d say at least five or so seconds worth of more heavily emphasized effects shot before a certain line of dialogue is read would have made the point much more powerfully.  (Five or so seconds may not sound like a lot, but it’s a screen eternity.)  But the point is made none the less, so again, we still have a winner…

…and I’d be quite happy to see what anyone involved here has up her sleeve for a next movie magical trick.

Not that there’s any trickery here; not really.  If you’ve ever dealt with grief, whether caused by extreme circumstances or so-called mundane ones, you’ll see that all The Last Light does is tell the truth… ending included.  What more can one ask for?

Bottom line, should you get the chance to see it, The Last Light is certainly worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2013

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