All too often in film and TV, rape is used as a plot device – a way for cable dramas to display their grittiness, a pretext for a campaign of vengeance, a hazily recollected backstory – but rarely is the actual trauma and its long, uneasy aftermath given the detailed and unflinching treatment it deserves. Writer-director Jessica M. Thompson’s “The Light of the Moon” aims to do just that, and her simply-structured film is harrowingly effective in its streamlined, low-frills way: sensitive without ever being sanctimonious, brutally frank without ever lapsing into exploitation.
A survivor’s narrative about a woman who might bristle at that description, the film introduces us to Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz) a sardonic young architect living with her workaholic boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David) in Brooklyn. After he stands her up for a night out with a client, she has a few too many at a local bar with some coworkers, and while walking home with her headphones on, she’s dragged into an alley by a stranger and raped. (Though brief and sensitively shot, with the camera in tight close up on Bonnie’s face, the assault scene is appropriately upsetting.)
In starkly matter-of-fact fashion, Thompson shows us every step of the aftermath: dealing with brusque cops, unsympathetically clinical treatment from nurses, and the sinking “what now?” feeling after finally arriving back home. But the real drama starts in the days immediately afterward, as Bonnie tries to resume her previous young Brooklynite life as quickly as possible, while random circumstances and her entirely well-meaning boyfriend keep reopening the wound in so many tiny ways.
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After telling everyone at work that she’s been mugged, Bonnie’s colleagues offer sympathy along with the occasional joke, and Thompson’s script is attuned to just how deep an unintentionally flippant remark can cut. But the heart of the film is her relationship with Matt, who has gone from a slightly under-attentive partner to a smothering, overprotective amateur grief counselor. He’s clearly doing the best he can to support her, and the film is bracingly honest about the limits of the help he can provide. (In one of the film’s most insightful scenes, Bonnie tries to make a dark joke about her assault, and Matt is the one triggered by it.)
“The Light of the Moon” is Thompson’s first feature, and it reveals some roughness around the edges as it goes, particularly with some uneven supporting performances and incidental dialogue. But Beatriz’s lead turn is expertly balanced and judged, as her attempts to keep the world at arm’s length only invite greater audience empathy. Of course she’s traumatized by what’s happened to her, but she’s also viscerally pissed off that this experience has to become part of her everyday life, and that added layer is particularly believable.
“I don’t want to be part of this sisterhood of rape victims,” Bonnie explodes after an encounter with a sobbing fellow survivor at a police lineup, and Beatriz is never shy about letting her character reveal some nasty shades as she gradually realizes that her usual lines of emotional defense (booze, overwork, sarcasm) aren’t working anymore. The paradox of recovery – wherein ignoring the trauma can be toxic, but over-acknowledging it can allow it to completely dominate your life – is one that she can’t quite untangle. To both Thompson and Beatriz’s credit, they never seem interested in providing easy answers.