Director: Bruce Thierry Cheung
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 82 Minutes
Don’t Come Back From the Moon, based on the Dean Bakopoulos’ novel of the same name, is Bruce Thierry Cheung’s first feature film as a writer/director. Usually his hands are busy with the camera, directing the photography of someone else’s vision. That comes as no surprise. Moon is a cinematographer’s dream, primarily utilizing imagery to bring the essence of Bakopoulos’ novel to life.
Whereas the novel takes place in a Rust Belt town in the Midwest, the film is set in a desolate California desert town. This sandy and futile tract, void of opportunity, plays a huge role in both determining the picture’s mood and guiding the story. Teens have got nothing better to do but party with their friends and play with the random junk they find in abandoned homes or scattered across the empty beach. Parents only have their families, and for some that’s not enough incentive to stick around.
One father leaves a note that reads, “I’m Going To The Moon I Took The Cash,” before he skips town. Fathers abandoning their families is a normal occurrence in this already dreary neighborhood. Where they go is a mystery. They’re just gone, so it’s as if they went to the Moon. When the sons and daughters imagine the Moon, they imagine a kind of paradise. Maybe paradise lies anywhere but home.
After Roman (James Franco) deserts his family, we watch how his eldest son, Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg), comes of age in the persistent man-eradicating grounds. He’s admirable – cooking meals for his mother, Eva (Rashida Jones), and his little brother, Kolya (Zackary Arthur) – but still goes out and about doing teenager stuff. With his laid-back attitude and ectomorph physique, Wahlberg is a perfect cast for the role.
Smartly, Cheung keeps his actors within a narrow emotional range for the majority of the story in order to properly carry out the film’s sedative atmosphere. Everybody delivers. Lesser known actor Alyssa Steinacker, who plays Mickey’s girlfriend Sonya, ironically comes off as the most seasoned actor. Jones impresses as the internally roused single mother, a dramatic role that we’re not used to seeing her play. But, surprisingly, the most standout bit comes from non-actor Jeremiah Noe with his brief dialogue, grieving for the son he abandoned.
Not much happens in this mild narrative. There’s some fighting, some romance and some kids hanging out. There are no real goals or mountains to climb for these characters, and that is part of the point. I do appreciate simplicity, but this is too simple, too plain and too short. Maybe the budget didn’t allow it, but ideally there would be an added plotline and extended run to develop secondary characters and bring our attention further into the story, all without sacrificing Cheung’s vision.
In Terrence Malick fashion, Cheung prioritizes mood at the front of the line with ease in his script and beauty in his images. Some of cinematographer Chotrungroj’s tranquil landscape shots could have been held for 10 minutes and my eyes would be content. The choice to shoot a large amount of footage during golden hour and using natural lighting gives the film an unforgettable location.
That’s saying a lot considering California desert towns typically look like roadside junkyards to the passerby. Cheung accumulates the sight of grubby pavement, paint-chipped walls, rusted cars and rodent-torn furniture together to form the film’s greatest character.
Don’t Come Back From the Moon is an ambient experience where location rules (think Lost in Translation or Days of Heaven). I could do without the whispering-narration indie film cliché, but otherwise Cheung delights the audience with his personal vision, thanks to his astuteness in the art of photography. Viewers looking forward to Franco will be disappointed, as he has only a few minutes of screentime, but we’ve got him to thank for getting this eye-catching, spirit-sparking project off the ground.