In Don’t Come Back from the Moon, the men are gone. Surrounded by desolation in a town that has been left behind, the patriarchal leaders treat their responsibilities in kind. Whether it’s to find work or to start over is unknown, but regardless of reason, the decision to blow Dodge and leave their families behind becomes--sadly--easier to rationalize.
The occurrence became so frequent, and those left behind so hurt, that the phrase “going to the moon” was coined for the abandoning men. The euphemism is a coping mechanism of sorts, reshaping the harsh reality and making light of the situation to minor effect. The newest member of the coping consortium is Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg), and it’s through his eyes Don’t Come Back from the Moon is told.
Don’t Come Back from the Moon
Director: Bruce Thierry Cheung
Release Date: January 18, 2019
At 16, Mickey is forced into growing up faster than any 16-year-old should. He watched his friends and neighbors lose their fathers to the moon. His uncle went to the moon, leaving Mickey’s cousin to fend for himself. Mickey’s convinced, even with the evidence in front of him, that his father Roman (James Franco) wouldn’t follow suit. His new reality sets in when a quick stop at a convenience store reveals Roman’s true intentions.
Mickey’s mother Eva (an underused, but excellent Rashida Jones) falls into a downward spiral as softly as a falling feather. There’s no loud arguments and no broken furniture. Mickey takes things in stride as best as he can to provide as the head of the household. Meals of eggs and grilled cheese abound. Killing time in the bed of a receded lake, wrestling friends and sword fighting with sticks in the dust. Ripping pipes out of walls to trade as scrap during the day, drinking and partying at night.
The abandoned youth have a strong bond. That’s evident in the overlong party scene, filled with clinking beer bottles and shot glasses filled as quickly as they’re emptied. They party because they can get away with it. Who’s going to discipline them? The men are gone, and the mothers in this town aren’t authoritative figures. One mother even says so much after being caught kissing a boy half her age. “There’s no one else,” she says, the last light of hope for her husband’s return long since extinguished.
The kids make peace with the situation their fathers left them in. At one point, a pact is made with a spoken vow that they would never, under any circumstance, go to the moon. It’s made with such severity that one would be forgiven to think it was punishable by death. The coping mechanism strengthened through an oath. During a party, Mickey and Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker) share a moment as he convinces her to curse her father, an act of voicing the pain and letting go, all with mutual understanding.
Nothing can make a boy grow up as quickly as falling for a girl. The awkwardness between Mickey and Sonya is all too relatable, and their time together offers a brief glimpse of hope for the future. Even though Mickey is forced to be tough, and even though he gets drunk often, he knows his priorities. His brother and mother. Sonya. His cousin and their group of friends. It’s what holds him together. But Mickey is a Jenga tower, and it doesn’t take long for one of those key pieces to get pulled out from under him.
The movie embraces despair and leaves hope scattered to the wind as if it were no more than the dust at the bottom of the once great lake. Buildings and factories are left and forgotten like the children who scavenge them. There is beauty in uncertainty, and director Bruce Thierry Cheung captures the jaw-dropping desert sky at some of the film’s most defining moments, almost as a punctuation to the events taking place. The choice to forego a steady hand in filming only adds to the shakiness each character faces. In one particular scene, two boys give another a beatdown, then run off as emotions run high. The swinging camera follows, and as they two come down and regain composure, so too does the camera slow and steady.
The focus of this story is on the boys becoming men, and the men who force them into that position by leaving. Eva and the small handful of other females in town aren’t portrayed in a strengthening light. Early on, it’s revealed that she’s has been with Roman since they were 15, and once he casts the family aside for something better, she wilts. Her grieving process is understandable, but even after she sobers up and starts making money by cutting hair, she’s shown as weak and reliant on her 16-year-old son to pick up where Roman’s broken promises left off. There’s no communal mothership to help take up the parenting mantle, and it’s a broken system in perpetuity.
The movie feels believable in stops and starts. Wahlberg as the lanky lead suits the role well, especially when consoling his younger brother and keeping food on the table. With extremely limited on-screen time, Franco is simply fine. What his limited time provides is a character that viewers can’t quite connect with enough to fully miss. The emotion felt is around those left behind, but even anger doesn’t fully form for Roman’s disappearance. The movie is focused on Mickey and his struggles but had a few extra scenes to better identify feelings towards Roman been available, his absence would elicit a stronger viewer reaction.
The final half-hour is the most beautiful part of the film. It’s where Mickey truly and unabashedly turns into a man. The drinking and scavenging is all part of his new routine. But then he’s faced with his truly first grown-up dilemma--and it is a dilemma--where he literally has to choose his own path. The uncertainty in which Wahlberg expresses Mickey’s pain at the crossroad is stoically pushed aside in a sad, but wonderful moment. The future is uncertain, but Mickey intends to make it his own.