In a time when sexual assault is grabbing more headlines in the news — both about occurrences and the penalties (or lack thereof) that follow — filmmakers have started to take it upon themselves to be a voice for the survivors and the voiceless. Premiering at the SXSW Conference, The Light of the Moon is the most recent and deeply affecting incarnation of this subject matter, with a refreshing take.
Helmed and written by freshman director Jessica M. Thompson, the film follows Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz), a young New York architect on the rise who has a penchant for cocktails at the club. Her nights out are her way of dealing with her business-obsessed boyfriend, Matt (Michael Stahl-David) — this is all a coping mechanism for her.
The audience knows immediately that once Bonnie takes a pill from a stranger the next scene will find her blacked-out on the sidewalk, or in an alley somewhere. It’s an all too familiar beat, but that’s not a negative. The audience may judge that action, but when it comes to reality, things like this happen all too often, making this a frightening PSA.
Not only does Bonnie get disoriented walking home at night after turning down a cab from her from friend Jack (Conrad Ricamora), but she also puts her headphones on, unable to hear her assailant come up behind her. During the assault, Thompson keeps the camera on Bonnie’s face the entire time, only cutting to a wide shot to show her rapist run away, leaving Bonnie destroyed.
Back home, Bonnie tells her boyfriend she was mugged. When he asks what they took, it’s a rhetorical question. The assault may have taken a few of her possessions, but it also took her dignity and privacy away. It’s one of the most affecting scenes in recent memory.
For fans of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s this scene where Beatriz stops being Rosa Diaz and becomes Bonnie. As Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Beatriz is an emotionally unavailable badass detective. Her casting here may throw some viewers, as she plays such a vulnerable character, but with this performance Beatriz shows she defies typecasting.
The actress continues to work magic throughout the film, as she and Stahl-David go through their characters’ relationship. Not only is Bonnie’s life coming apart, Matt is also left reeling — feeling inept as the man of the house, unable to protect Bonnie. There are moments between the two that feel inspired by the Before trilogy, with two long uninterrupted takes as Thompson dissects the couple’s future together. While Beatriz often steals the emotional thunder, Stahl-David has his moments too.
The Light of the Moon‘s screenplay never pulls any punches, completely running the gamut of emotions. Bonnie goes through stages of denial and exaggerated acceptance, as does Matt, opening up a dialog of the peripheral effects of sexual assault, making for a tumultuous relationship.
Not only does Thompson show her chops as a writer but also owns it in the editing room, using a sound design to help emulate Bonnie’s stinging memory of her assault. Beatriz does enough on her own, but just one simple ringing sound elevates the pain to a more cerebral level, steering clear of the revenge that’s so often seen in films about sexual assault survivors, such as the recent Elle. There is a time and place for those type of stories, but ultimately it seems an unrealistic coping mechanism.
There are moments that recall typical indie movie cliches, trying to say something important on a low budget, but the final product leaves little room to remember those. Keep both eyes open for Beatriz and Thompson in the future.