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Men leave, women adapt and kids grow up quickly in Don’t Come Back from the Moon, a spare tone poem set in a tumbledown corner of the Southern California desert. Adapting a Detroit-set novel by Dean Bakopoulos, cinematographer-turned-director Bruce Thierry Cheung makes the community of Bombay Beach, a dilapidated onetime resort on the Inland Empire’s Salton Sea, a character in its own right. A delicate change-of-pace performance from Rashida Jones, as a young mother, is another notable strength of this understated coming-of-age drama.
Though the story’s early stretches feel slender and repetitive, Cheung gathers the undertow of atmosphere and emotion for a beautifully realized final half-hour, matching the striking visuals with involving, unpredictable interactions.
The memory piece, set in an unspecified analog era, centers on the sixteenth summer for Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg), who lives with his mother, Eva (Jones), and younger brother, Kolya (Zackary Arthur). His father (James Franco, for whom Cheung shot In Dubious Battle and The Sound and the Fury) has become the latest in the neighborhood’s long string of adult males to split. Whether they leave in search of work or to escape responsibility, most slip away without a word, never to return, a disconcerting local trend that the restless teens call “going to the moon.”
The kids respond in varying ways to being abandoned. When they aren’t partying, Mickey and his friends scavenge scrap metal from abandoned trailers and trade it for secondhand goods — no small thing in a wasteland of shuttered factories. Mickey’s chief partner in this enterprise, his cousin Nick (Hale Lytle), sublimates his rage and anxiety over the disappearance of his father (Jeremiah Noe) into training a wild parrot. Attracted to Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), Mickey encourages her to express her anger at her absent father (Robert Scott Crane), but her willingness to forgive eventually conflicts with Mickey’s feelings for her.
On the home front, where grilled cheese is a staple, Mickey keeps his brother fed and cared for while Eva falls into despair. Jones beautifully underplays her unraveling and her recovery. Snapping out of her fog, Eva resourcefully hangs out a shingle — a hand-lettered sign — as a hairdresser. One of her customers, a quiet grocery-store clerk (Henry Hopper), falls for her, and Cheung draws depths of hope and brightness from their brief scenes together, wonderfully played.
The teens’ stories, however well performed, haven’t quite the same spark. Undercutting Wahlberg’s compelling watchfulness is the film’s surfeit of references to the moon, in dialogue, voiceover and visuals. Rather than deepen the allegorical thrust of the story, these choices simply feel obvious, nudging the drama toward the thin line between mood and affectation.
But Cheung’s unaffected compassion for his characters sustains the drama and grows more powerful as it proceeds. And the cinematography by Chananun Chotrungroj (Pop Aye, Yosemite), with its thick shadows and saturated colors, is fully attuned to the wild beauty and desolation of the edge-of-the-world setting. The rusty remnants of commerce and domestic life are constant reminders of failed endeavors, yet the cleansing desert light promises renewal.
Production companies: Dark Rabbit Productions, Elysium Bandini Studios, Kalamalka Productions
Cast: Jeffrey Wahlberg, Alyssa Elle Steinacker, Henry Hopper, Zackary Arthur, Hale Lytle, Jeremiah Noe, Cheyenne Haynes, Robert Scott Crane, Ambar Velazquez, Anthony Ontiveros, Rashida Jones, James Franco, Shirley Long
Director: Bruce Thierry Cheung
Screenwriters: Bruce Thierry Cheung, Dean Bakopoulos, based on Bakopoulos‘ novel Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon
Producers: Jay Davis, Lauren Hoekstra
Executive producers: Vince Jolivette, Jim Reeve, Robert Halmi Jr.
Director of photography: Chananun Chotrungroj
Production designer: Maki Takenouchi
Costume designer: Natasha Noorvash
Editor: Joe Murphy
Music: Johnny Jewel
Casting: Craig Campobasso
Sales: CAA, Great Point Media
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (U.S. Fiction Competition)
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