There is much talk of dream worlds and celestial travel in “Light Years,” an intimate, opalescent debut feature from British writer-director Esther May Campbell, yet it’s supposedly everyday life that its anguished characters find hardest to grasp. Tracing the brief reunion of an unraveled family over the course of one sun-soaked summer day in the English countryside, Campbell’s enticingly sensuous, heat-hazed drama demonstrates the meticulous command of composition and romantically desolate atmosphere that won her a short-film BAFTA in 2009. As storytelling, however, it feels elusive and incomplete: Abstract philosophizing takes precedence in a tale of domestic dysfunction that might otherwise make for a modestly conventional indie heart-tugger. Following fest berths in Venice and Toronto, the sprocket-opera circuit reps this promising pic’s natural home; even U.K. arthouse auds are likely to find “Light Years” an imposing distance to cover.
Aficionados of British independent cinema should note that “Light Years” has been shepherded by Third Films, the production company of “Better Things” director Duane Hopkins. (His most recent feature, “Bypass,” premiered in Venice last year, receiving a minute domestic release the following spring; Campbell’s film looks to follow a similar path.) It’s unsurprising that Hopkins and Campbell should have collaborated: She shares something of his affinity for ornately stylized social realism, with a light-flooded mise-en-scene that subverts standard expectations of Brit miserablism. Also a practicing stills photographer, Campbell may actually have a keener eye than her patron: Shooting predominantly in 16mm with digital interludes, she and lensers Zac Nicholson and Will Pugh conjure a wealth of suggestive, surprising images, whether capturing a teenage kiss between the blurred, rushing carriages of a freight train or a tangle of blood-related bodies sharing a cathartic underwater swim.
Viewers are required to read much between the woozy lines of this splendid imagery; often, the focus and positioning of characters within the frame implies more about their relationships and inner lives than Campbell’s poetically opaque script is willing to disclose. The most lucid member of the ensemble (thanks largely to her ruminative narration) is the youngest: Bright pre-adolescent Rose (Zamira Fuller) observes with melancholic bewilderment the detached, unresponsive behavior of her older siblings Ewan (James Stuckey) and Ramona (Sophie Burton), as well as her seemingly grieving Turkish father Dee (“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” star Muhammet Uzuner, lending some world-cinema cachet to a very British affair). All four appear locked in private pockets of psychological paralysis as the day dawns; later, a title-prompting spoken metaphor likens them to remote stars in orbit, far apart from each other yet still fundamentally connected.
Gradually, the reason for their silently shared depression emerges: The children’s mother, Moira (folk-pop singer Beth Orton, in her first acting role since the 2001 U.S. independent “Southland”), has been confined to a care home for an unspecified illness that appears to be ravaging both her physical and mental health. As Rose, exasperated by her family’s listlessness, sets off to see Moira on her own, the film’s bare-boned story is blearily, belatedly set in motion. However, it’s only when a harsh additional facet of Moira’s disease is made known — recalling a key plot point of the recent “Still Alice,” even as Campbell otherwise avoids either medical or melodramatic detail — that the tough emotional stakes of the piece are made concrete. “I want to know how it feels to be normal,” says Ewan with resigned sadness, and he’s not speaking with standard teenage exasperation; “normality” is evidently an unattainable privilege for him and his siblings, but “Light Years” steps back just as their collective sorrow comes to the surface.
Performances are sincerely felt, if occasionally as guarded in expression as the script. Campbell gets particularly intuitive, inquisitive work from Fuller (an acting novice, as is her onscreen sister Burton), while young Mickey Morris proves a drive-by (or, given his preferred mode of transport, cycle-by) scene-stealer in an abruptly sidelined part as a raggedy neighboring lad with an unrequited crush on Rose. The film’s adult performers are given comparatively little room to flex, though Orton cuts a strikingly hollowed, bereft figure as the ailing, absent parent. Sadly, she never gets to sing, though the pic’s stark, guitar-brushed score and soundscape — as delicately textured as its visual finish — get by without her.