Matt Bush, William Morton and Rome Brooks in The Wake of Light (Photo: Axis Pacific)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Renji Philip
STARS Rome Brooks, Matt Bush

The Wake of Light, an indie effort written, directed and produced by Renji Philip, centers on Mary (Rome Brooks), a lonely woman living in a small town that’s surrounded by nice scenery but nothing else. She has few friends — I suppose that’s partly because the town seems so tiny that there might not even be enough citizens living there to put together an impromptu basketball game. The main reason, though, is because she spends the majority of her time tending to her father (William Morton), a quiet widower who moves from bed to table to couch to table and back to bed again. The rest of the time, Mary is hoofing it on the streets, attempting to sell jars of the pristine water pumped from the family farm’s well.

Clearly, Mary needs a stranger to ride into town and rescue her from her life of quiet despair. And per the dictates of standard screenwriting, that stranger will be some combination of Hollywood-handsome, effortlessly charming, mysteriously taciturn, and oozing sex appeal by the bucketful.

Actually, that would not be Cole (Matt Bush). Stranded in town for a few days because of a broken down car, Cole approaches Mary out of the blue and hardly comes across as a knight in shining armor. He’s awkward and he talks too much, a mix that leads to some quasi-interesting, quasi-embarrassing utterances stumbling out of his mouth. He’s attentive but perhaps not quite attentive enough, since he never once (at least on camera) offers to carry Mary’s tray of water bottles for her. Mostly, though, he just seems to be the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, as evidenced by the fact that Mary quickly brushes him off.

But Cole is nothing if not persistent, so he tries again. This time, Mary cuts him a break and allows him to tag along as she hawks her water. She soon finds that she’s comfortable in his presence, and she sees that he makes her laugh. But Mary is afraid of getting too close, because her lot in life — or so she believes — is to take care of her dad. So when Cole suggests that she travel with him on his cross-country sightseeing expedition, Mary, who has lived in this town all her life and has never even seen an ocean, becomes resentful, sad, and confused.

The Wake of Light, then, can be seen as a story of a person seeking freedom but being constrained by her predicament. But more than that, it’s a film about a person not even needing the freedom to act as much as the freedom to choose. It’s an interesting deviation from the norm, and it provides the movie with a texture that it would not have acquired had it ambled down more familiar paths. Cole represents neither the journey nor the destination for Mary but instead serves as her catalyst, and Bush does a fine job of conveying a character who, as we later discover, needs to accept advice as much as give it.

Brooks is excellent as Mary, registering longing and soulfulness even when she’s not uttering a word. As for Morton, he’s effective playing what might be the piece’s most engrossing character. Before we learn his story, Mary’s father is an imposing presence, even despite his presumed frailty. He never speaks, which begs the question of whether he can’t talk or whether he doesn’t want to talk. Is Mary basically functioning as his servant more than as his daughter? Does he think so little of her that he can’t even bother to engage her in conversation? The answers come into focus as the film progresses, yet Dad remains an interesting figure throughout.

The technical contributions are all sound, with the music worthy of a special mention. It’s rich and expressive in feeling, with Josh Mancell contributing the original score and Josh Kramer responsible for the lovely piano compositions that carry along the picture’s resonant messages of hope and change.

(The Wake of Light is currently playing the festival circuit and will expand in 2020.)

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