It’s Fourth of July, but Miles is in anything but a celebratory mood. He’s just found out that his daughter has been abused, and he’s looking to retaliate against her boyfriend.
Tearing out of his driveway, he speeds through their middle-class Southern town to confront the abuser. But the confrontation takes a turn in a way that he doesn’t expect — one that reveals his helplessness as a parent and the limits of violence and domination.
Writer-director Bobb Barito’s pared-down, tense drama begins with an explosive fit of emotion, with the father raring with a primal vengeance in the name of his daughter’s violation. Right away, the film feels like it’s dropped the audience right into a climax, complete with high emotion and rapid-fire visuals to match. Taking its cues from the main character, the camerawork and editing are equally volatile and agitated, building momentum towards what seems like an inevitably heroic confrontation.
But the storytelling makes an interesting decision to play out the confrontation between father and his daughter’s attacker in an unexpected way — one that reveals the ethos of aggression and violent retribution that pervades the community. Miles does get the justice he desires and his abuser does pay for what he has done, but not in the way that’s expected.
Actor Ed Moran deftly captures the way Miles deflates in the wake of the incident, where he’s rendered strangely ineffectual and helpless despite everything. That sense of impotence is carried over into the film’s quieter yet more emotionally devastating second half, where Miles discovers that no amount of vengeance or “justice” equips him to be there the way his daughter needs the most. He clearly loves his daughter, and flies easily into a rage when she’s harmed. But she needs comfort, care and solace, and Miles is sadly unequipped to offer those to her.
The last scene’s sense of silence and shadowy stillness speak eloquently of his daughter’s heartbreaking isolation, their broken relationship and Miles’s own shortcomings as a father. Miles has done what any “good” father would do, and yet the film is both compassionate and unflinching in portraying the limitations of that role’s ultimately narrow conception.
“Light My Fire” is focused, lean and pared down in its writing and narrative scope. But by subtly inverting the traditional structure of a short film and showing the denouement of what’s usually a cathartic climax, it offers a intelligent, subtle commentary on just what this catharsis of retribution, revenge and “justice” achieves. This deeply entrenched imperative of patriarchy and masculinity, the film suggests, doesn’t serve the people it supposedly protects.
Instead, it’s more about the exertion of power: a game of winners and losers who are destined never to come out on top, no matter how fierce their rage and anger may be. And those who are collateral damage under that game are on their own with their pain, just when love and care are needed most.