Novices are told to write about what they know, but sometimes, material that’s too personal creates its own kind of trap. So it is with “The Moon and the Son,” John Canemaker’s intensely autobiographical documentary about his troubled relationship with his father. An Oscar winner in the animated short category, Canemaker’s effort is constantly inventive visually — as one image morphs into the next — but feels more like a therapy session than a coherent work. Although interesting, watching it is a little too much like homework.
Derived from interviews Canemaker conducted with his father before the old man’s death in 1995, the story charts how the father — the son of Italian immigrants — abused his wife, turned the family dinner table into a war zone and spent time in jail for torching his own business. Much of the turmoil extends back to the dad’s ties to organized crime, though he freely admits that he wasn’t much of a criminal.
Eli Wallach provides the father’s thickly accented voice, while John Turturro stands in for Canemaker, who discusses his anger toward his dad and how he drew inspiration from not wanting to emulate him. There’s an underlying current here that’s alternately angry, maudlin and self-congratulatory — all understandable emotions, certainly, but also indicative of the project’s self-indulgent tone.
What does make “The Moon and the Son” tolerable is its visual flair, rapidly mixing drawings, still photos and fluid animation to illustrate the bursts of anger, veiled mob figures or the filmmaker’s flights of fancy about his father’s place in the nighttime sky. In that respect, the fairytale imagery intriguingly offsets the decidedly adult themes.
As Canemaker admits, though, the film was made specifically “to resolve long-standing emotional issues” regarding his father. Let’s hope the imagined conversation has achieved that aim, because it doesn’t do much to invite an audience into the dialogue.