LAFF 2017: A Fatherless Culture Founders in ‘Don’t Come Back from the Moon’ ✮✮✮

“Don’t Come Back from the Moon” is about a desert dystopia that could be all too real. Anyone who has driven the I-40 or other interstate roads that traverse the deserts of the Southwest will have seen the abandoned homes, shacks and businesses. There’s nothing romantic about these types of ghost homes and towns and “Don’t Come Back from the Moon” is a hazy, hazardous reality that seems to crush romance.

Narrated by a boy, the boy tells us, “When I was 16 I had lice in my hair. My mom shaved it all off. I looked like a peanut; I hated it. That wasn’t the worse thing that happened that year. My father went to the moon.”

This isn’t Cape Canaveral (or JPL-NASA) and his father isn’t an astronaut. The boy is Mickey and Mickey’s father, Roman Smalley (James Franco) has been with their mother Eva (Rashida Jones) since she was 15. They have two sons, Mickey and his younger brother Kolya (Zackary Arthur).

The dying town where the Smalleys live once was used as a vacation spot. There used to be fish in the lake. What was once a boat house is now remnants of a frame about to collapse. “Don’t Come Back from the Moon” isn’t, however, about environmental issues except for the toxic human community that Mickey is part of.

Early on, Mickey recounts how Uncle John (Jeremiah Noe)went to Mexico “because he thought he was in trouble about the fight. He wasn’t though; we just never saw him again.” While Mickey continues, saying “I suppose it doesn’t matter that Uncle John left” and then adds, “The next day the factory closed down for good.” His parents argue. Roman asks, “What am I supposed to do? Just sit here and rot?”

Mickey’s mother replies, “I want you to start thinking about us.” Later, Roman takes his two sons for a drive and leaves, telling Mickey  he needs to use the restroom of a gas station. He just never returns. Other disappear. Sonya’s father leaves her a long, rambling letter as if he doesn’t expect to see her in the next three years. Another father takes the cash and writes he’s gone to the moon and that’s what this sudden paternal exodus becomes: men going to the moon.

The ache of separation and desertion is felt in Eva’s frustrated panic and in Mickey’s unsupervised nights of vandalism, theft and drinking.  We’re told “with all the men gone, the boys became men” and those men react in different ways. One boy gets a job and then becomes sweet on Mickey’s mom. Mickey has two girls, Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker) and Jodie (Cheyenne Hayes) in his sphere or interest. Both the romantic overtures toward his mother and his own forays into romance will force him to become a man.

Granted the constant intercut black and white lunar scenes get to be annoying instead of lyrical, but director Bruce Thierry Cheung (“Making A Scene with James Franco”) doesn’t judge the young teens and doesn’t exploit their sexual explorations. The focus remains upon a toxic environment. Based on Dean Bakopoulos’ book “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon,” by transferring the action from Detroit to an isolate nameless community in California’s desert, this movie seems to implicate the harsh environment over urban blight. As someone who has passed by these modern ghost towns, it’s hard to deny the tragedies there and wonder what it’s like to live in a real town on the verge of extinction. I haven’t read the book, but urban blight would surely implicate the apathy of municipal, state factors over the harsh realities of a natural and geographical desert.

“Don’t Come Back from the Moon” had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival and director/screenwriter Bruce Thierry Cheung was given special mention for directing by the US Fiction jury.

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