Light of Day (1987)

20 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Admittedly, I thought that “Light of Day” was going to be a rock-n-roll fable about an aspiring rock band hoping to make it big. Seeing that rocker Joan Jett was one of the leads, and that the title “Light of Day” refers to her featured song (co-written by Bruce Springsteen), can you really blame me?

While that would have been an interesting film to see, and I think it would have, “Light of Day” is more than I expected. It features rock music and a rock band led by a character played by Joan Jett, but it’s really a serious drama in which problems are introduced and handled, and music seems to be the best way for the characters to compensate for them. It’s a quite effective movie, with great acting and intelligent writing.

Jett plays Patti Resnick, a rebellious young woman who sings for a rock band every night. In the meantime, her life means nothing to her. Only two things matter most to her—rock-n-roll and her six-year-old son Benji (Billy O’Sullivan). But because of her love for the music, her home is not a very healthy environment for Benji, who was born out of wedlock.

Patti and her mother (Gena Rowlands) haven’t been on good terms for a long time. The mother is a Christian woman who doesn’t approve of her daughter’s lifestyle. She resents Patti, while trying not to show it. But it comes through in the more subtle ways, such as an early scene where we’re introduced to this wedge between mother and daughter. It’s a scene in which Patti, due to the wishes of her brother Joel (Michael J. Fox) who wants to make peace between the two, goes to her mother’s birthday dinner and the situation has already been somewhat uneasy for the family, and the mother says grace at the table as her prayer slowly but surely becomes something more specific—she asks God to forgive her daughter.

Patti storms out and we see the tension that’s always present between the members of the family. The mother resents Patti’s behavior and lifestyle and is especially resentful of Patti having a child out of wedlock (though she does love the child). Patti is obsessed with rock-n-roll, but has a lot of anger that she takes out on the stage. She also finds herself wondering how her life would’ve turned out if she had had an abortion. This is one of the strongest scenes in the movie—Benji has been taken away to live with Patti’s mother for his own good, and Patti tells Joel, “You know, I could’ve had an abortion and Mom would’ve never found out.” Pause. Then she wonders what would’ve happened with her music career if she had—“I’m a good singer.” But then she states that she just wants to hit herself for thinking that way, because she does love her son.

Joel, who also performs in the band and works in a factory during the day, is the reactor to these expressed feelings (some straightforward, some subtle) by his mother and his sister. He tries to make peace between the two, but it’s not easy. He doesn’t want to risk hurting the people he loves, but he can’t really help them much either. And then Joel becomes more of a father than an uncle to little Benji, because of how he always has to make sure that he’s given proper care. He even objects to defiant Patti taking the kid on the band tour—cheap motel rooms, free beer—but Patti won’t listen. This is also quietly tragic in that Joel used to idolize Patti’s spirit.

How about the father (Jason Miller)? He’s a wimp, basically. He stands by while everyone else goes about their problems and feels it’s best not to be involved. (In the dinner scene, he stays on the couch in the living room before dinner is served, so that he doesn’t start anything beforehand.) He’s a sensitive man who should be the peacemaker in the family, but alas, it’s his son that is doing the job for him. He’s in the background quite a lot in this movie until later when he gives an insightful speech about what is going on with this family.

The family aspects are very well-handled by writer/director Paul Schrader. He effectively tells a story about a family that has fallen apart, but maybe could have a chance of reconcilement. Rock-n-roll music may be a good element in compensation for these issues, but the family elements are the backbone of the story. Things get more serious and more effective with the news that the mother is very ill with cancer and most likely not going to make it. This provides the payoff between her and Patti, with strong, effectively done bedside scenes between the two.

The acting is across-the-board solid. Michael J. Fox is very good as the quiet reactor to most of these situations and it’s heartbreaking to know he’s doing what he can, but can’t do enough. Despite given top billing in the credits, however, he isn’t the lead. That notion belongs to Joan Jett, who makes an excellent acting debut. Jett brings to her performance a great deal of depth and weight, and completely sells the film’s stronger scenes, including that scene I mentioned about the abortion, and especially the bedside scene involving her mother. This scene means everything to the film and the superb performances by her and Gena Rowlands, as the mother. This is the payoff in which the two set aside their differences and have a real talk about what has happened in their lives. This is the best scene in the movie—it’s heartbreaking, excellently-acted, well-handled, and downright effective.

There’s something else I should bring up, since there is quite a lot of rock music in “Light of Day.” The soundtrack—Patti and Joel’s band, in particular—is pretty memorable. (The title song Light of Day” is a pretty good song.)

“Light of Day” is a well-acted, well-made movie that would probably satisfy those who appreciate well-crafted family dramas, such as “Terms of Endearment” which people would probably think of. Who wouldn’t like it? Probably those who thought this was just a movie about a rock band. To be clear, “Light of Day” is a lot more than that. It was a pleasant surprise for me.

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