“Would you consider yourself a believer or a skeptic?”
The question is directed at Shelia (Marin Ireland), the protagonist of the graceful and moving drama “Light From Light.” She lives in Tennessee with her teenage son, Owen (Josh Wiggins), and works behind the counter at an airport car-rental service, but in her free time she moonlights as a ghost hunter, an investigator of the paranormal. Given her sensitivity to the spirit realm, which includes a history of prophetic dreams and other encounters with unexplained phenomena, you might expect Shelia to have a clearer answer than the one she gives: “I don’t know what I am.”
The difficulties of not knowing — what we are, what might happen, where we go when we die — are central to this second feature from the writer-director Paul Harrill. Fittingly enough, I find myself not quite knowing how best to describe this movie and the curious tremors of feeling that it gradually but assuredly induces. If you were to imagine “The Conjuring” stripped of its scares — or “Ghostbusters” with less ectoplasm — and reimagined in the minor-key mode of regional American filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Patrick Wang, you might come close to approximating its effect.
If that sounds like a ludicrous formulation, Harrill and his collaborators seem well aware. “Light From Light” draws you in early with its guitar-twang score and its lovely shots of the mist-wreathed Great Smoky Mountains, but much of its sustaining charm comes from the sight of ordinary, no-nonsense people calmly trying to wrap their minds around the unthinkable. After Shelia goes on a local radio program to talk about her investigations, a priest (David Cale) reaches out to connect her with a troubled widower, Richard (a wonderfully melancholy Jim Gaffigan). His old east Tennessee farmhouse has lately experienced minor rattlings and disturbances that he suspects may be supernatural visitations from his wife, who died not long ago in a small plane crash.
The few phenomena that Richard describes — keys that seems to move of their own accord, the eerily familiar feeling of his wife’s touch on his skin — could well have rational explanations. Shelia listens to his story patiently and attentively, and with sensitivity to his still-raw grief. Her operation is charmingly low-rent (she doesn’t have insurance, she notes apologetically) and comes with no assurance of results. Before long she’s poking around Richard’s house at night with a flashlight and recording equipment, imploring his wife’s ghost to make an appearance: “If you wish to communicate, let yourself be known.”
Those words have applications beyond the strictly paranormal. A story of grief, loss and a haunting without horror, “Light From Light” is very much about the challenges of communicating with other people on this plane, let alone the next. Shelia and Richard’s inquiry into the possibility of paranormal activity requires some mutual trust, especially when Richard delves into the trauma of his wife’s death and the emotional confusion he feels about her possible return. Their delicate, tentative dance is echoed in awkward, endearing fashion by Owen and his college-bound classmate Lucy (Atheena Frizzell), who appears to reciprocate his feelings for her, despite his own ambivalence about acting on them.
Harrill is awfully good at ambivalence, at teasing out the feelings of people who are uncertain what they want and in no hurry to talk about it — a condition that afflicts more characters than we often see in American movies, independent or otherwise. His 2014 debut feature, “Something, Anything,” was the affecting story of a shy, unassertive young woman seemingly destined for marriage and motherhood, until suddenly, one day, she realizes — decides — that she isn’t.
In “Light From Light,” he shows the same fascination with individuals who quietly resist the impulse to simply go through the motions. That applies to Shelia, beautifully played by Ireland as a woman figuring out the purpose and parameters of her otherworldly gift, and also Owen, honestly wondering about the point of entering a relationship with no guarantee of permanence and a strong likelihood of pain. Harrill offers no easy consolations or resolutions, even when he does orchestrate one moment, gracefully executed and meticulously foreshadowed, that sends out delicate shock waves of feeling.
The title is a phrase from the Nicene Creed, a declaration of Christian belief that has been a staple of orthodox liturgy since the fourth century. The text speaks to the presence of the visible and the invisible, the impermanence of death and the promise of the afterlife. “Light From Light” speaks to those ideas as well, though with a modesty and an openness of spirit that are the very opposite of the dogma. It knows that the most resonant movie isn’t a creed, but a question.
‘Light From Light’
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Starting Nov. 8, Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles