Austin Film Festival 2014
By Don Simpson | October 26, 2014
Director: Jennifer Harlow
Writer: Jennifer Harlow
Starring: Lindsay Burdge, Annalee Jefferies, Matthew Newton, Rocco Sisto, Mark Reeb
A haunted house film in which the only ghosts exist within the protagonists’ minds, The Sideways Light utilizes audio and visual elements of the horror genre but steers clear of any real frights. Expressing an exuberant amount of directorial patience in the methodical pacing of the film, writer-director Jennifer Harlow approaches this female-centric story as a meticulous exercise in mood and tone. With the help of cinematographer (Jay Keitel), composer (Daniel Hart) and editor (Don Swaynos), Harlow places the audience in the same disorientingly claustrophobic mindset as the protagonists. In practically every frame of this film, sources of light are blown out to the point of distortion, stretching horizontally across the screen and blurring the on screen images, making it unclear what (if anything) might be lurking in the shadows.
Dementia serves as the catalyst for Harlow’s slow-burning psychological analysis of Lily’s (Lindsay Burdge) maternal lineage. The creepy old house relishes in the history it has shared with its female inhabitants over the decades. Memories are stored away in chests and jars in the attic, collecting cobwebs and becoming foggier with the passage of time. Lily and her mother (Annalee Jefferies) feel an intense connection with the house, one that drives them into secluding themselves from the outside world. This is why Harlow purposefully does not establish any sense of location or community, thus trapping us in Lily’s ever-shrinking world.
What Lily fears the most is that she will eventually turn into her mother, especially since predisposition to dementia is a prevalent genetic quality of the women in her family. Even at her young age, Lily’s madness rears its ugly head as she grows increasingly attached to her past. Memories function as ghosts, lulling Lily into psychological submission. Like her mother, Lily begins to recognize the safety and security of the past, as well as the benefits of living a life in seclusion.
With little exposition or backstory, The Sideways Light relies heavily upon Jefferies and Burdge’s facial expressions to convincingly communicate each of their existential struggles. The audience plays a purely observational role, watching the subjects as they descend into madness but armed with very few facts as to why this might be happening.