Although I have yet to experience fatherhood, I do know from close friends and family members that any type of parenting is a challenge. At the same time, though, many say it is a blessing. In some cases, however, there have been people that could no longer handle it, and, unfortunately, walked away - leaving their child and significant other behind in an attempt to find something that they feel is more suited for them. That’s essentially the premise of Bruce Thierry Cheung’s Don’t Come Back from the Moon, which is based on Dean Bakopoulos’ novel, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. It’s a slim 82 minutes in length, and some of its symbolism can get a bit heavy at times, but it’s also quite effective.
Cheung’s film is based in a California desert town that sees a growing epidemic of men telling their children they are “going to the moon.” To the kids, it makes it sound like they are off on an awesome exploration of space - a big adventure that they, themselves, wish they could do. Or at least that’s what the father tends to believe the kids would think. In reality, it’s a code for them practically saying they most likely won’t come back. The main character is Mickey Smalley (Jeffrey Wahlberg), whose father, Roman (James Franco, barely in the film), has left the teen and his younger brother, Kolya (Zackary Arthur), alone with their mother, Eva (a solid Rashida Jones). Like so many others left without a father figure in their life, Mickey joins the rest of the neighborhood kids in constant partying and scouring for scrap metal they can trade.
On the inside, though, these kids are all lost. They find numerous ways to escape their worries about reality. For Mickey, the film shows how tough it is for someone his age to adapt to becoming the male figure of the house, while he’s still trying to grow as an individual himself. He watches his mom, who’s just as lost as he is, break down and do what she can in order to keep the family together. He’s starting to grow interested in girls his age. One of them is Sonya (a wonderful Alyssa Elle Steinacker), who doesn’t have a parental figure in her life and is even more scared about growing up and trying to figure out where she can go without anyone to look up to.
Cheung seems to be aiming for a much deeper exploration into life and growing up in a one-parent - or in some cases, no-parent - household, by cutting away from the film’s setting to grainy shots of the moon or using voiceover dialogue to get the point across. Several scenes feature a shot of a broken picture frame that has the image of someone’s family or the father that left. It’s a bit obvious what the message is, as Cheung isn’t so subtle about it, and he’s not exactly holding back on the criticism of absent fathers. But he also does explore the other side on which one of the teens’ fathers does come back and how the person reacts to it. These moments, when they come up, prove to be rather powerful.
Don’t Come Back from the Moon is a beautiful-looking film, with tremendous cinematography by Chananun Chotrungroj. The barren landscapes of the southern California desert are exquisitely captured, and, even though it’s bleak in appearance, Chotrungroj is able to showcase some beauty. The imagery itself makes it worth seeing in a theater.
As a whole, though, the film doesn’t quite reach the emotional impact of something that a director like Terrence Malick has explored. Cheung does understand that his film must reach a level in which the audience must understand and to which they can connect. He does accomplish that quite well, capturing what young children get away with when adults aren’t around. The performances by Wahlberg and the other young actors all come across as authentic in showing how teens have trouble figuring out where to go in their lives when the adults are gone. The partying may be fun and all, but the smack of reality is a hard one.
Don’t Come Back from the Moon releases to theaters and VOD on January 18.