Cinematographer-turned-director Bruce Thierry Cheung offers an artful and affecting mix of harshly defined specifics and impressionistic storytelling in “Don’t Come Back from the Moon,” a cumulatively poignant drama about absent fathers and abandoned families in an economically devastated desert community. Structured more like a tone poem than a conventional narrative, it’s an elliptical memory play set in some fuzzily defined yesterday — judging from the appliances and automobiles, maybe 20 or so years ago. At the same time, it also evokes a sense of bleak devastation that suggests a futuristic tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world.
Such stylization seems altogether appropriate for a film that, at heart, really is a story about the aftermath of a disaster.
“Don’t Come Back from the Moon” is based on a novel by Dean Bakopoulos (who collaborated in adapting the screenplay with Cheung) that was set in a declining Rust Belt town; the story has been relocated to Bombay Beach, a once-thriving Salton Sea resort community that fell upon hard times and, from what we see onscreen, never fully recovered. For the purposes of the plot, the locale is a factory town that went bust when the factory shut down.
Driven by equal measures of shame and desperation, Roman (played, fleetingly, by executive producer James Franco) skips town after a long stretch of unemployment, leaving behind two sons — 16-year-old Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg, nephew of Mark and Donnie), the film’s occasional narrator, and his younger brother Kolya (Zackary Arthur) — and his wife, Eva (Rashida Jones). He is but the latest in a long line of husbands and fathers who have fled for parts unknown, a phenomenon that has cued the loved ones left behind to refer to the departed men as having “gone to the moon.”
Eva spirals into alcohol-fueled depression — then lifts herself up through sheer force of will, and sets up a home-based hair salon. But her sons and their friends remain aimless, unfocused and, when they allow themselves to think of their absent fathers, bitterly resentful. They spend their summer days playing games with an enthusiasm that seems forced rather than deeply felt, or salvaging scrap from abandoned homes to trade for bikes and other items. At night, they drink to excess (one of the departed dads owned a bar, and he’s no longer around to check I.D.’s or demand payment) and, it seems, to forget. At one point, Mickey drifts into a sexual relationship with Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), another teen who’s sorely miffed at an absent father. But their relationship is threatened — and her anger incrementally diminishes — when her prodigal dad unexpectedly returns.
With its shadow-streaked images of a community declining into rust and ruin, and its repeated hints that some eruption of rage might at any moment disrupt the wall-to-wall air of ineffably beguiling languor, “Don’t Come Back from the Moon” reflects the influences of early David Gordon Green (especially “George Washington”) and more recent Terrence Malick, but stops well short of feeling derivative or affected. The performances, running the gamut from Wahlberg’s implosive Mickey to Steinacker’s feisty but needy Sonya) are pitch-perfect across the board. (Some supporting players are effectively cast nonprofessionals from the Salton Sea area.) Chananun Chotrungroj’s relentlessly roaming hand-held cinematography enhances the overall sense of spontaneity and discovery.
There are times, unfortunately, when Cheung pushes too hard, and struggles to wring symbolism from aural and visual allusions to the moon (including what sound like archival news accounts of NASA explorations). Much more often, however, the movie captivates and fascinates as a free-form dream constantly poised on a knife edge between roiling nightmare and reassuring resolution. The surprising yet satisfyingly ambiguous ending allows for either option.