Produced by Samm Haillay, Light Years is the debut feature film from BAFTA winning film maker Esther May Campbell.
The mystery of a fractured family's past is explored during one, long hot day when taking destiny into her own hands, the youngest, Rose, sets off through bewitching and liminal locations to search for her missing mother. The odyssey triggers her elder anxious brother and sexually obsessed sister to leave their own comfort zones and head out to find her, colliding with ghostly characters and sensual situations that could easily distract them from finding the young Rose. All the while their disconnected parents sense the drama that magically unfolds between them all, until finally together they face their buried secrets and extraordinary legacy.
A giddy trip through England's edgelands Light Years conjurs gorgeously subtle pieces of visual storytelling, poignant music and a strong sense of place, to offer a startling story of loss, hope and the deepest of human connections.
The film features the acting debut of acclaimed singer/songwriter Beth Orton, alongside acting veteran Muhammet Uzuner (ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA) and a cast of young newcomers and circus performers. With recordings from Chris Watson and music by Constellation Records’ Eric Chenaux, the film was taken to premier at the Venice Film Festival.
BAFTA-winner Esther May Campbell’s debut is a film of arresting beauty and heart-breaking depth.
"Following her BAFTA winning September, Campbell’s moving and reflective first feature more than fulfils the promise of her garlanded short.
Joining a select but honourable lineage of British works that display an acute sense of the potencies of place, weather and the edgelands (active agents in the telling rather than simple background), Light Years is at once a quietly insistent rites-of-passage piece, a subtle meditation of the implications and ripple effects of mental distress and a lyrical celebration of childhood resilience, imagination and common cause in the face of parental absence, whether locational or emotional.
With excellent use of painting, still photographs and a genuinely evocative sound-scape, it explores the handing on of experience and the fundamental unknow- ability at the heart of families and between generations, what might be thought of as the intimate otherness of people (sensitively caught in the ventriloquising witness of a silent night window familial encounter).
Both a heightened realist study of regional lives and (be)longing and a dream of childhood epiphanies among the extraordinary-ordinary days of the suburban / rural borderlands, 'LightYears’ shines with an art- ist’s pleasure in associative narrative and place-making.
A true-to-life tale of growing up, a fable of being lost and found, it’s a journey into the woods - and out again - that deserves to be widely seen, and striking evidence of a welcome new ensemble of talent, full of conviction in the possibilities of their art."
“BETH ORTON IS A FEARLESS ACTOR”
" Light Years offers dazzling fractured moments to savour: a stolen kiss witnessed in glimpses as a speeding train passes; a golf ball spiralling into a hole, a mother and her children filing gracefully through a forest of silver birch trees "
"CAMPBELL’S VISUAL SENSE IS ALREADY SO STRONG YOU LONG TO SEE WHERE SHE’S HEADING NEXT."
"Imagination protects from pain. When we are young this is the golden rule that adult consciousness destroys. Nevertheless, that inner "child" can reappear; one has only to search for it in the lightness of a detail or a gaze. Light Years holds on to this. In its marvellous ambiguity of a phrase with double meaning, the ages of Rose, Ramona and Ewan are as "light" as well as "light years" distant from the loss of innocence. Light Years is the story of a special day for their family.
"At the origin was a fragment of a scene in my head: an 8 year-old girl that runs after a bus to go meet her mom." This is how director Esther May Campbell describes the main inspiration for Light Years, her "long" debut after a multi-awarded short (September, 2008) and the direction of a few TV-series episodes of great success.
The little girl became Rose, and the mother became Moira, who is hospitalized. At that age one is protected by not fully understanding sickness: only Rose's teenage sister Ramona and her pre-teenage brother Ewan start to be aware. The father, Dee, works in a greenhouse. He takes care of them without invading their purity, without undermining their sublime universe of imaginary unconsciousness. Ramona dreams of her first love, while Ewan is struggling to get out of the safety net of his home. Unlike her siblings, Rose is still free and suddenly leaves home and sets out alone to meet her mom because nobody wants to go with her.
There is no doubt that the point of view of Rose was meant to be that of the film. But Campbell's choice does not reduce itself to the coherence of an observational point of view, but involves also (and probably mainly) the creative process of Light Years. "I suspect I'm being intuitive," confesses the director and screenwriter. Her intuition is easily deduced from a direction style which is rich in visual and sonic cues, that on the whole composes a work of extraordinary creative freedom and is held together with a solid (and evident) awareness of the medium.
Esther May Campbell, who used both 16mm and digital formats in order to "visualize" her debut, filmed during a long period of time and does not seem to be afraid of venturing into hybrid linguistic territories: suspensions and acceleration of rhythms, a voice-over that poetically reflects into thoughts only apparently light years distant from the plot, parataxical language as an indicator of the modus ragionandi of the youngest. To return to the intimate gaze of a child is one of the most complex processes in nature. Maybe because it seems to go against nature. Yet, once the first step is made, everything can become credible, even God's hat above the sky.
For instinct or for choice, Campbell adheres to different traits of Romanticism, such as in the manifestation of an intimate/osmotic relationship between her characters and Nature, or the powerful relationship between the English countryside and coast displayed in balance between the wilderness and the industrial and railway settings. She does that similarly in the symbiotic relationship with death as an inevitable resource of life. The children understand the pro-found meaning of death but they are not aware of it and this is why they don't fear it. Rose and her moth-er are conscious of it: "Did you know... that some stars aren't actually. They just look like they're there. Hanging in the constellation. But they're not. And they haven't been for millions of years. In fact they're dead. And they're light years away from each other." This is how Moira explains to Rose the meaning of death that is still life. Moira is sick and she will die, or she is already dead and she is just an omnipresent star-ghost protecting her little girl, her children. The answer is not given and is purposely left open to interpretation in a small but great film that with courage, levity and tenderness reaches one of our most intimate points: the sense of existence and of family connections".
" The feature film directorial debut from photographer and Bafta award-winning director Esther May Campbell is a Sunday afternoon daydream. A child’s bored hallucination, unencumbered by expectations, free-wheeling in imagination and inventiveness. The quirks of the family we are gifted an insight into are a pleasure to behold, threaded into the dialogue, which is natural, if at times a little random. But all can be forgiven. There is no randomness in the sincerity of sibling relations which blossom as the film unfolds.
Rose is searching for her mother. She misses her presence in a stale family home the structure of which has evidently unravelled. Her father, who promises to take her (wherever that may be), runs off to work as if he can’t face it after all. There is clearly a lot of simmering pain being dealt with. But Rose, determined, sets off on her own, embarking on a quest to rescue her mother from an unnamed ailment.
Left behind in the home is Rose’s oddity of an older brother, Ewan, dealing with the deficit of a mother with mild hypochondria as well as obsession with what “normal” means, and older sister Ramona who spends her time spinning fantasies about love and being rescued by a man. The English countryside landscape is green, bathed in sunshine, and pretty empty, giving weight to the notion of everything being dream-like. Adults don’t seem to supervise their children here; a young boy roams around on a bicycle struck by the same imaginary love as Ramona, but for her little sister.
The nature of abandon is supported by poetic monologues of conversations and voice overs that snake past like clouds. This backdrop means that when reality does kick in, it has weight. The rambling storyline pulls the family together, somehow. They congregate in the forest, at the seaside and then finally in the institution where their mother is living. Although a piece of the familial puzzle is always missing, detached or else where – their father hiding at work, Rose running away, the collective siblings watching their parents interact from afar as if the puzzle as a whole is something no one can deal with – the indications of tenderness are there. These people love each other, but they are mourning what once was or dreaming of what could be. The present is a little harder to face head-on.
What is so gripping about Campbell’s film is the attention to detail. She knows the value of saying things inadvertently and giving the audience members a chance to make connections for themselves, such as why Ramona keeps dropping to the ground in the middle of her walks and why Ewan keeps staring at himself in awe. The story is patient as it waits for its characters to reveal their motivations, and there isn’t a moment when there isn’t something beautiful to look at thanks to photography-duo Zach Nicholson and Will Pugh. The space provided allows for newcomer Zamira Fuller (Rose), Sophie Burton (Ramona) and James Stuckey (Ewan) to give the inspiring, subtle performances that they do".
"Like My Neighbour Totoro adapted to live action by Terrence Malick, Light Years tells the story of a gently fractured family – of three children adrift as their mother moves into a care home, and how the pressure of her illness brings them and their father into a more alert and tender awareness of the world around them, and the fragile bonds between them.
Produced by Samm Haillay, who also produced Duane Hopkins’s Better Things (2008) and Bypass (2014), Light Years similarly enters spaces neither urban nor rural, where industrial estates reveal vibrant greenery and wooded uplands overlook dual carriageways.
Campbell, whose previous directing work includes teen television series Skins, shows great confidence in handing the majority of the film’s scenes, and its point of view, to her young (mostly first-time) performers.
Zamira Fuller stands out as Rose, who drives the action by taking off to find her mother Moira’s care home after her father Dee promises to take her there and then reneges. Each child follows their own narrative: Rose, the youngest, has to find the mother she barely remembers prior to the onset of her illness; Ewan, the middle child, searches for signs that he has inherited Moira’s genetic condition, and has to confront his fear of impending doom to look for Rose; and Ramona, the oldest, waits for a love story as romantic as that of her parents’, who met when Moira was travelling in Dee’s homeland. Having found the boy of her dreams by chance, she has to walk away from him when she remembers that her sister is missing. Moira and Dee are less mobile, trapped in their mourning for each other. Alone in the care home, Moira mimics bird cries; Dee immerses himself in his work at an industrial greenhouse, surrounded by pollinating butterflies. Each of them has near-wordless scenes with carers and co-workers that build their separate identities, the sense that each is only half-there without the other, before they are reunited at the end – brought together obliquely by their children’s determination.
In their meeting, Campbell’s film also subtly creates rapprochement between the localist ‘new British weird’ and transnational Slow Cinema, by casting Turkish actor Muhammet Uzuner (Once upon a Time in Anatolia) in his first English-language role as agricultural worker Dee, opposite singer Beth Orton as Moira. Orton’s performance is summed up in the scene where a care worker removes Moira’s flesh-toned medication patch to reveal the bare skin beneath: she peels off the layer of social behaviour associated with mothering and adult femininity, immersing herself and the viewer in a fresh and frightening understanding of the world.
When Moira plunges into the sea towards the end of the film, and Rob McGregor’s underwater cinematography takes over, resonances with Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) surface, present also in the opening images of flashes of light against darkness. Repeated throughout the film, this enigmatic panned shot changes from sunlight between tree trunks to headlights strafing a golf course, and finally to stars in the sky when Moira explains the Big Bang to her youngest daughter.
This cosmological flight is what induces the comparison to Malick, though Campbell’s film is resolutely secular, or possibly animist. As in the cinema of Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Clio Barnard, horses, rats, wind and trees have as dynamic a presence as humans – framing Moira’s illness and its effects within a sense of a cosmos that is still expanding".