During one family backyard gathering one summer afternoon, Southern family matriarch Kim has gathered her family to view the eclipse. Her daughter brings not only Kim’s granddaughter Katie but her new boyfriend Nathan, who is meeting them all for the first time.
Though he seems good-natured and caring, especially with Katie, she begins to suspect all is not what it seems with him. They initially skirmish over an argument over the Bible, but when Kim observes Nathan with Katie — and see signs of a darker agenda — she confronts him, unearthing the family’s own troubled history in an explosive moment.
Writer-director Tony Oswald’s powerful, short drama is a marvel of restraint, marked by an abiding air of mystery that unsettles and unnerves. The setting is quintessentially American, but in many ways the film has the feel of naturalistic European drama, with its willingness to privilege the unspoken and suppressed emotions driving behavior versus words and action. Its visuals have a striking clarity, melding subtle beautiful light with restrained camera movements that seem to edge around Kim as she stalks her home, alert to something quietly alarming in her midst.
The storytelling is willing to elongate quiet moments of doubt, fear and anxiety, letting them rise up and be buried again and again. As a result, viewers can watch with remarkable intimacy how one character’s past colors her in the film’s present — all with a gripping desire to keep it from happening again in the future.
The film is anchored by a taut and compelling performance by lead Kimberley Glass, who is also the director’s mother. She plays the family matriarch with a careworn watchfulness that becomes activated when she senses that her daughter’s boyfriend may not be the good guy he portrays himself to be.
The sensitive camerawork and emotionally attuned editing allow viewers to take in the small gestures and signals that cause Kim’s antenna to go up, as well as her own internal battles to speak up, first indirectly and then more forcefully, in a final scene remarkable for its honesty — and brutal for the possibility that trauma may be buried once again by familial silence.
“Great Light” handles a difficult subject with great care, respect and dignity, as well as with a keen eye for how trauma lives on from one generation to another, abetted by shame, denial and powerlessness. Despite the stretch of time and the efforts to rebuild a self and a life beyond it, sexual abuse shapes the way its survivors read the world and relate to others. Watching Kim reveal the difficult burden she’s carried in silence is gut-wrenching — all the more because despite its explosive power, it’s still answered by disbelief and silence.