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VENICE 2015 Critics’ Week

Light Years: A family constellation anchored by mental illness


- VENICE 2015: Esther May Campbell takes on the serious subject of mental illness with a dash of British humour in her new feature, starring singer Beth Orton

Light Years: A family constellation anchored by mental illness

In Light Years [+see also:
film profile
, screened during the Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival, British director Esther May Campbell tackles the topic of a mental illness that has an effect on an entire family. Rose (Zamira Fuller) is the youngest of three siblings, and the film opens with her narrative voice as she poetically introduces her family ties. She is eventually the one who sets out to find her mother (played by singer Beth Orton), who lives in a care home, due to her health condition. In the span of one day, each of the family members sets out on a journey to find Rose and also to reconnect as a family.

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The film accomplishes its goal: to tell another story of an incurable illness, not from the perspective of the patient, but rather through the eyes of the people closest to them. The title Light Years, as explained in a scene in the film, draws on nature, the evolution of things, and their constellations – most importantly those of stars, which are much like the setup of a family. Over the course of the movie, it poses the question: how do things, such as mental illness, evolve? 

At the heart of the story also lies the worry of inheriting this disease as the children face their fear of possibly suffering the same fate as their mother. This anxiety reoccurs several times through the children’s game of copying each other. Early on in the story, we see Rose and her brother Ewan (James Stuckey) engaging in a sort of mirroring game, in which he asks his little sister to imitate him. They sit opposite each other and move around two glasses. Ewan takes a sip of water, waits, and as he then spits the liquid back into his glass, Rose loses irrevocably, as she has already swallowed her water. Scenes like these, with an added sprinkling of British humour, continuously loosen up the seriousness of the burden the family faces. And the audience ultimately grasps the gravity of the mirroring game when we learn that the first signs of the mother's illness had originally surfaced during one of these games. 

Every member of the family handles their immanent fear in a different way: the father, Dee (Muhammet Uzuner), chooses to disappear as he wishes; the older sister, Ramona (Sophie Burton), loses herself in her imaginary boyfriend; and the brother, Ewan, seems to almost never leave the house, crushed by the fear of a man who appears to be following him.

The images by self-taught photographer and filmmaker Campbell remain at times mysterious and nightmarish, as the protagonists wander through the landscapes of roads, woods and fields – also representing an “emotional landscape”, according to the director.

Light Years has been snapped up by international sales agent The Match Factory.

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