The title of Amber Sealey’s impressionistic third film comes from a five-line poem by Persian poet Rumi, that begins, “Late, by myself, in the boat of myself/no light and no land anywhere.” It’s a perfect metaphor for her borderline-breakdown heroine Lexi, played with unnerving commitment by British actor Gemma Brockis. A 40-year-old woman who has left her husband and her life back in the U.K. to search for the father who abandoned her at three years old, she is truly adrift in the boat of herself, bobbing about helplessly on the shabby periphery of L.A. like it’s the ocean on a starless night.
The story Sealey tells is slender, dissociative and inward-looking to the point of self-indulgence at times. But Brockis, with her stubborn jawline, two-tone shock of hair and striking heterochromatic eyes, is a powerful presence. And even when Lexi is unlikable, even when she doesn’t quite earn her self-absorption, Catherine Goldschmidt’s shimmery, handheld camerawork keeps bringing us back to her, as if magnetized.
Under a hubbub of urban unease — traffic, far-off sirens, the high electro whines of Jeffrey Brodsky’s score — Lexi checks into a shabby motel and, in between unsatisfying (relatively graphic) sexual encounters, follows a sparse breadcrumb trail of clues to find her father. They lead her to his second ex-wife, now bedridden and being cared for by her daughter, Tanya (Jennifer Lafleur), an overwhelmed nurse who is less than thrilled to suddenly have in her life a half-sister so clearly bristling with emotional baggage.
Their first encounter is rough (it’s a refreshing reversal that here the Brit is the emotional, talkative one, and the American is stiff with social reserve), but then none of the encounters in Sealey’s film go according to Lexi’s plan. In her breathy, uninflected voiceover, she tells us of the role play she and her husband indulged in, but when her casual, two-night-stand Matt (David Sullivan) tries to play along, she responds with such disdain that you can’t help but pity him. However sleazy his intentions, he really does want to connect with her. But Lexi is too far gone into herself to be reachable by a random pickup, or by any of the strangers whose faces float up out of the LA night.
It is Lexi’s tragedy that her searching need for connection is exactly what makes connection impossible — at least on the terms she has dreamed up and obsessed over in her own head. Pivoting between self-regard and self-hatred, nothing outside the minute ticking of her time-bomb thought processes really interests her. In woozy montages, she walks on the beach, stumbles gasping into the surf and compliments the residents of a care home on the quality of the California light — so different from London’s. But there’s never a sense that any of these exterior cues make an impression on her mood. The sun doesn’t matter when the weather is inside you.
This is the tiniest of films; even its brief 73-minute runtime feels grandiose for the story it tells, which struggles to swim upstream against a strong countertide of mundanity. Yet that, too, is part of the point: The unromanced view of L.A. at its most banal, the improvisational, often clunky dialogue and embrace of anticlimax might be distancing, but they’re also honest. One-to-watch Sealey, here teaming with Miranda July as executive producer, has a quiet faith in the false starts and flubbed exits of real life. And that gives “No Light and No Land Anywhere” a truthfulness that intermittently cuts through its insubstantiality like the hopeful flashing of a ship’s signal lamp from a hazy horizon.