“There is nothing here.”
Life should be simple in the heat and isolation of the Southern California desert, where men work at the local factory, women tend to their homes, and kids run amok in the sand. As the factory shuts down and work comes to a startling halt, however, the men mysteriously start to disappear one by one, leaving the desert behind for the “moon,” where a fresh start sounds like an enticing solution to their collective existential crisis. Based on the novel of the same name, cinematographer-turned-director Bruce Thierry Cheung makes his debut feature with Don’t Come Back From The Moon, a quiet, rough around the edges coming-of-age story set in an unspecified time period that lulls and impresses in equal measure.
The story revolves around a boy named Mickey as he traverses through his 16th year, the older son to a pair of high school sweethearts, Eva (Rashida Jones) and Roman (James Franco). As his parents bicker and argue about the future just on the other side of the paper thin walls, Mickey looks after his innocent little brother, Kolya (Zackary Arthur) in an emotionally effective scene, highlighting only one of the many trials in their working class conditions, where the desert has become nothing but a dead end anymore.
Survival comes first and happiness second, but on one evening, after the three boys spend the day bonding and shooting the shit with each other, Roman predictably decides that he’s had enough. He walks off without a word, leaving his two sons wrapped in each other’s arms in the back of their family truck. Without even a single tear to shed, the boys accept this cruel reality in silence, forced to find their way home without a father.
In a heartbreaking sequence of shots, Cheung highlights a series of departures with images of teenagers waking up to find themselves fatherless. A bar owner leaves a note, “I’m going to the moon. I took the cash.” Another one writes his daughter Sonya pages and pages worth of empty apologies, leaving her behind with nothing but her cat. The kids, then, are forced to grow up faster than they should, exploring the murky waters of their adolescence without anybody to guide them but themselves. The fathers served as a compass, and with them gone, the kids are lost, alone, and left without anything to look up to but the moon that hangs over them at night. Unfortunately, the mothers are underdeveloped if not completely overlooked, useless and invisible as if they disappeared to the so-called moon themselves.
The teenagers, then, spend their days collecting scraps from random junkyards and abandoned houses, and when the sun sets over the desert, they party and drink like their livers have already seen it all before. Their loss brings them together, seeking comfort in each other as they come to terms with abandonment and loneliness. Mickey and Sonya grow incredibly close, only for her to eventually move away herself, in search of a better life past the emptiness of Bombay Beach. Yet again, Mickey is heartbroken and lonely, incapable of containing his rage any longer. He’s faced with a difficult choice: run away from his problems like his father, or does he resist the urge and pursue his own fate?
With the film on his shoulders, Wahlberg does an effective job as Mickey, finely capturing both the awkwardness and angst required of an emotionally ravaged teenager. Jones and Franco are unfortunately both wasted, but Jones easily has it the worse of the two with a criminally underwritten role as Mickey’s mother. Despite this, she delivers on all fronts, showcasing a dramatic versatility that she’s never been allowed in her prior projects. Eva, after all, is no longer anything but a shell of a person after her husband’s departure. She’s shamefully uninvolved in her kids’ lives, and very rarely even in any scenes with them when they’re not sharing a breakfast made by her own teenage son. Such a introspection on fatherhood (or the lack thereof) shouldn’t mean that mothers should be pushed aside, and yet.
Compelling as the performances are, the film simply loses quite a lot of steam as it reaches its second half, feeling much too long even as it only clocks in at 90 minutes. The development of Mickey’s story simply isn’t as interesting as it was when we are first introduced to him. Not to mention, every little twist and turn is too predictable, making way for a hugely unsatisfying resolution. Don’t Come Back From The Moon is a fine enough debut, but one can’t help but wonder how it could have benefitted from a much sharper script.
Don’t Come Back From The Moon is playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival 2017.