Sunny is a young drifter who finds herself staying at the isolated home of a reclusive old man, who lives all along in a remote coastal town. On a dark, restless night, he decides they’re having dinner together — a meal of crabs he cooks himself — and goads her into taking a bath and dressing up, although he also seems forgetful and erratic.
In her room, Sunny discovers that Don is actually a renowned author who disappeared from the world’s stage after a fabled career. She also discovers his tortured family background: a wife who died by suicide, a daughter lost to time.
At dinner these two lost and lonely souls hammer at their crabs and slowly open up to one another, in a wary back-and-forth that reveals the damage Sunny carries, flashes of Don’s former brilliance, his present sorry state — and the unexpected connection they have.
Writer-director Zach Bandler’s powerful drama begins with hypnotic, sweeping views of a coastline and the dark, restless waters of an ocean, all captured with ravishingly moody cinematography.
In the midst of such raw, desolate natural beauty, though, a small chamber drama takes place in a lighthouse, where the story’s two lonely, damaged souls face off over dinner. What unfolds takes some time to suss out, but it unfurls into a powerful story about reconciliation, communication and how the forgiveness and sense of witness we desire from the people who hurt us never quite happens the way we anticipate.
The intimate scale of this drama puts the focus on the undercurrents of tension that build up between the two actors, who offer intense, gripping performances that emerge as some of the film’s best, most memorable assets. Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Davison powerfully essays the role of a once-great, now-forgotten literary lion with a garrulous ease and charm. But his surface hospitality and generosity mask a deep sadness about his current state that seeps out despite his best efforts.
That push-pull also invites the hostility of his guest Sunny, played by SAG-nominated actress Meg Steedle — known for “Boardwalk Empire” — who brings to life the role of a damaged military veteran who seethes with long-simmering resentment and palpable discomfort in the world. Don senses this, provoking and stinging her with passive-aggressive barbs. The emotional mystery is just why Sunny so guarded and angry and why Don becomes the focus of that anger. When it finally emerges just how Sunny and Don are entwined, it propels a painful but much needed opening of truth and emotion that leads to the film’s final movement, which offers both a reckoning and a quiet grace note of forgiveness.
Both performances in “The Lightkeeper” are many-layered and complex, and both actors are able to invoke years of emotional burden, whether it’s in how rigidly Sunny holds herself or the jovial yet controlling way Don orders Sunny around. Yet by hearing one another out and granting forgiveness, the film makes a powerful point about the role that it plays in lightening those burdens. It isn’t absolving another of the hurtful impact of their actions, but a gift that you give to yourself to let go of anger and resentment — and then move forward, able to embrace the freedom and possibility of the future.