Lucas, a young father who’s living with his mom, putting himself through school, and co-parenting his daughter, speaks the film’s titular line in the opening minute, as he realizes someone has been through his room while he was out of the house. The whole shape of the film, however, is folded around a different kind of absence, a hollow spot in the center of the story left by Lucas’s troubled brother Kenji.
Finding his school laptop missing, Lucas hits the streets of his town searching for a sign of Kenji. As the upright elder trying, in however self-interested a way, to right the wrongs of his shiftless younger brother, Lucas’s afternoon is haunted by an unseen presence.
In its style, While I Was Gone is a quiet wonder, matched perfectly by an understated performance by Lucas Monroe, who also shares story credit along with director Daniel Pfeffer. Particularly impressive is the way the film sits so comfortably in its locale (Ithaca NY), forsaking any sweeping scenery for glimpses of the fleeting height of summer in this snowy place: the darkness that clusters in the corners of a room at noon, high August’s vicious green, the way a cracked road-shoulder crumbles off into gravel.
Addiction can make strangers of family, trapping siblings and parents and friends in an impossible choice: either to make the massive sacrifice that it can take to help someone through recovery, or to move on without them. On top of the volumes already written along these lines, Monroe and Pfeffer’s film offers a few moving stanzas. -Jonathan Kieran.