Parenthood is an experience which changes you in ways you can’t imagine until it happens to you. You can hear about it, you can be adjacent to it, but not until you become responsible for someone else’s everything does the change occur. For some, it’s a joyous transformation as the bond between parent and child grows deeper, fulfilling them both in ways unimaginable. For others, parenthood is a harrowing experience, as they become saddled with an obligation they find themselves unprepared for. No one ever really knows how they’ll respond to parenthood until it arrives, and the complexity, the nuance of the reaction often reveals who we truly are. It’s through this lens which director Bruce Thierry Cheung (The Color of Time) adapts the Dean Bakopoulos 2006 novel Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, creating a meditation on parenthood, adolescence, and the challenges of growing up.
One hot summer in a small town within the California desert, with the local factory shutting down, the working-age men slowly leave one-by-one, departing their families without notice or warning. Because one man left a note declaring “I’m going to the moon,” those left behind apply this mentality to all who leave. As tensions rise in town with families wondering who will leave next, Roman Smalley (James Franco) promises his wife Eva (Rashida Jones) and children Mickey (Jeff Wahlberg) and Kolya (Zackary Arthur) that he won’t follow, yet, like the rest, Roman, too, leaves. Angry and confused, the Smalleys grapple with their grief in different ways: Eva shuts down, Kolya desperately holds onto hope of his father’s return, and Mickey reluctantly takes on the mantle of head of the house. But as time passes and his desires change, Mickey begins to feel the pull of the moon in startling and unexpected ways.
Though the original novel isn’t something this reviewer is familiar with, a brief check on Bakopoulos’s website makes it clear that the final script took several liberties with the narrative. This is not a troubling issue, not just because Bakopoulos co-wrote the script with Cheung, but because the small shifts strengthen the story as it shifts to a new medium. The urban atmosphere, originally set in Detroit, is a colder, more isolating area, even as it’s empty from joblessness, compared to now being set in a desert plain in California. The lack of jobs in Detroit can be rationalized as a shift in consumerism or attributed to other socio-economic factors, whereas locating the town in a desert makes the changes feel less man-made and more about the unpredictability of nature to create chaos. Placed against familial rifts, the new setting is visually more powerful in communicating the core aspects of Moon: it’s not about what we can impact (economics), but about the stirrings within ourselves that are harder to control, convey, and handle. This is a particularly emotional notion as those left behind must come up with some rationale for why the men leave, introducing the worst kind of psychological spiral for many. Additionally, where so often novels are constructed in a manner which help the reader track time, similar tactics are not always utilized in cinema without significant intent from the storyteller, and Cheung doesn’t always apply intent. Where some aspects of the story are clearly occurring synchronous with the rest of the world, other moments feel like jumps forward or back, flitting through time like a space traveler unaware of distance or destination. For the most part, the unconstrained narrative flow works to communicate the psychological lost state of the people left behind, as well as the running together of days as the people take more control of their lives.
Furthering the concept of nature vs. nurture, Chananun Chotrungroj’s gorgeous cinematography and Johnny Jewel’s score ground the more emotionally charged moments and add introspection to the quieter ones. In one particularly sweet scene, Mickey hangs out with Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker) at a party the local kids are having in an abandoned bar. While the revelers dance in pure bacchanalian bliss, the barest hint of color sparkling from lights hung on the walls and ceiling, the browns of the wood paneling overtaking the frame as small beams of yellow light denote that this is a daytime revelry in the absence of fathers, the two sit quietly in the cool blue steel of the kitchen, getting to know one another and doing shots. There’s heat, intensity, and mindless ecstasy in one room, while there’s calm and more intimacy in the other, the scenes composed to reveal how different children cope with their losses. Toward the end of the film, as Mickey confesses his thoughts, he’s shot from behind at night, the only color coming from the disappearing sun as it reflects off a lake. Considering how much of Moon takes place during seemingly endless days, the composition is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but resonant with Mickey’s final conviction. All throughout these scenes, Jewel’s music plays, offering instrumental tracks with just a touch of science fiction elements, hinting at the other-worldly while keeping everything firmly rooted in the terrestrial ground.
Of the aspects of Moon which lack the smooth polish of the previously mentioned aspects of the film is the direction. It’s a shame to say given how wonderfully thoughtful Cheung’s approach to the story is, yet the free-hand approach utilized to capture the whole film is dizzying to the point of frustration. Given the meditative feel of Moon, generating a sense that the camera is floating within each scene does add to the dream-like atmosphere, however, where dreams jump from moment to moment, seemingly without tether, they possess a steadiness which makes tracking them possible. When the camera does allow for stillness, what it captures resonates, enabling Cheung and Bakopoulos’s cinematic vision to exude thoughtfulness, tranquility, and agonizing sadness.
Bruce Thierry Cheung’s Don’t Come Back From the Moon is an unexpected meditation on the complicated nature of family and how our grief can lead to depression, causing ourselves to come up with a myriad of reasons to leave, even when we know the right thing to do is stay. Though the direction often distracts from the narrative, the performances from the cast – particularly Wahlberg and Steinacker who deliver some truly gut-punching moments – bring you right back to center. Interestingly, though the characters seem to come to terms with their new lives, the film as a whole doesn’t seem to make a declaration in one direction or another, nor does it cast aspersions on intent. Instead, leaning once more on the internal theme of nature, it suggests a continuance and a renewal. It may not provide the most concrete of conclusions, but it’s certainly a satisfying one for the characters and audience alike.
Opens in Los Angeles, New York, and select cities, as well as on VOD January 18, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.