While also taking an executive producer credit, Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Short Term 12) offers a powerful performance as a young Brooklyn resident struggling to process her emotions after she is raped by a stranger. A feature debut for writer-director-producer-editor Jessica M. Thompson, whose résumé includes several shorts and docs, this low-budget indie prefers to make a credible and nuanced drama out of the protagonist’s crisis instead of dwelling on the criminal side of the story. Ultimately, the rapist’s identity and what happens legally is much less an issue here than what goes on between Beatriz’s Bonnie and her boyfriend (a very likeable Michael Stahl-David), and how the assault sends ripples through her life, affecting relationships with friends, family and co-workers. A run around the festival circuit and likely niche distribution won’t make anyone rich, but the reputations of all involved will be enhanced.
With the wider cultural conversation about rape culture, especially in the U.S., raging in the media, this honest and complex engagement with the subject is particularly welcome. Director Thompson writes in the press notes that the film was partly inspired by what happened to two friends of hers who went through similar ordeals, as well as extensive research with other survivors, police and professionals who deal with victims of sexual assault. She pointedly discusses Elle, MTV’s Sweet/Vicious and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as works which “unrealistically portray women avenging their assault and attacking their rapists,” which “in reality, is beyond rare,” adding “to society’s rape culture of victim blaming, by arguing that the victim should have fought back more.” While defenders of Elle might argue that that particular film takes a more nuanced approach than others, Thompson’s argument is nevertheless persuasive. It’s especially convincing since the script for Light of the Moon shows just how tricky the issue of blame is. Even Bonnie, the protagonist, falls into that very same mental trap herself late in the story when she confronts a complete stranger she sees on the street walking, just as she did, with her headphones on in a revealing outfit, paying no heed to how easy it would be for an assailant to sneak up on her.
However, well before that happens, before the rape itself, the opening scene establishes that Bonnie is a confident, strong character from a Hispanic family, an architect working at a successful New York City firm. She has been living with Anglo boyfriend Matt (Stahl-David), who works in advertising, for some time, and although they seem happy enough, it clearly irks Bonnie a bit that Matt is once again backing out of going out with her that night because he has to help entertain clients in Manhattan.
So Bonnie hits a Brooklyn bar with co-workers Jack (Conrad Ricamora, from How to Get Away With Murder, in a somewhat off-the-peg gay-bestie role) and Priya (Cara Loften) for a night of shots and merriment in a bar not far from Bonnie’s Bushwick apartment. It’s a fun evening, although a stranger (Mike Ivers) tries to get physical on the dance floor with Bonnie, who brushes him off firmly. Turning down Jack’s offer to share a cab, Bonnie dons her headphones for the short walk back to her place. DP Autumn Eakin’s handheld camera gets in close to Bonnie as she strolls down the darkened street and the music is loud enough that nothing gives warning that a hand is about to cover her mouth and that a hoodie-wearing stranger, his face in darkness, is about to pull her into an alley to rape her.
In terms of screen time, the assault is over in perhaps a minute but its after-effects reverberate for the duration of the film. Indeed, thanks to long takes and Beatriz’s unflinching, authentic performance, it almost feels as if the rest of the night unspools in real time as Bonnie goes home at first and almost has a shower before thinking better of it and taking herself off to the hospital. At first, she says she was mugged, but once Matt shows up the truth emerges and she must endure being swabbed and probed, both literally and figuratively, by medical professionals, a social worker (Patricia Noonan) and police (Craig Walker and Heather Simms) about what happened. Some are kindly and sympathetic, and some not so much as it’s evident even before a toxicology test that Bonnie was quite drunk at the time. No one actually comes out and says she was “asking for it,” or anything so crude and cruel, but the thought palpably hangs in the air and it is clear even Bonnie, to a certain extent, blames herself.
Up to this point, as sensitively executed as it is, Light of the Moon feels like many other dramas whose instigating incident is a sexual violation. It’s in the follow-up that it differs. Although an investigation proceeds under the supervision of DA Kirra (Catherine Curtin), no one seems very hopeful of a conviction. When another woman is raped in the area, Bonnie can’t identify the suspect in the lineup and in any case his DNA doesn’t match the sample taken from her that night. But all that is basically secondary to the telling of how Bonnie and Matt’s relationship falls apart, an arc sensitively charted through a series of small domestic interactions and a couple of painfully intimate sex scenes, once again filmed in tight close-ups and color-filtered darkness, where neither of them can put what happened out of their mind. Meanwhile, having been raised a Catholic, she finds it impossible to even tell her own mother (Olga Merediz) what happened.
Despite the strain of what they go through together, Beatriz and Stahl-David have a combustible chemistry together that adds credibility and Thompson clearly has a knack with actors, coaxing sharp, believable performances from all involved — even from actors with relatively small roles, such as the women at a support group Bonnie attends at one point, each face a portrait of pain and suppressed despair. Viewers can sense that there are many stories here, just as there have been many films about rape, but each experience of it is unique.
Production companies: A Steadfast Films production in association with Big Vision Creative
Cast: Stephanie Beatriz, Michael Stahl-David, Conrad Ricamora, Cara Loften, Olga Merediz, Keith Hamilton, Mike Ivers, Craig Walker, Heather Simms, Patricia Noonan, Erin Friend, Alice M. Bacon, Catherin Curtin
Director-screenwriter-editor: Jessica M. Thompson
Producers: Jessica M. Thompson, Carlo Velayo, Michael Cuomo
Executive producers: Stephanie Beatriz, R. Burns, Carl Cook, Gail Hili, Raymond K. Javdan, A. Kuksal, Sreekanth Midd
Co-executive producers: Alex Cirillo, Dani Faith Leonard
Co-producers: Darin Hallinan, Myriam Schroeter, Ashley Van Egeren
Director of photography: Autumn Eakin
Production designer: Lauren Helms
Music: David Torn
Casting: Bess Fifer
Venue: South by Southwest (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: Paradigm Talent Agency