Don’t Come Back from the Moon

At the edge of the Salton Sea, the abandoned 1950’s resorts are slowly melting into the desert. The few people who live there scratch a living out of the dirt and detritus of the past. In Don’t Come Back from the Moon desolation is a place called Bombay Beach. It’s also the prevailing mood in the small arid California town where hope has fled along with all the adult men. Women and children are left behind in the swirling dust. A note on a mirror reads “Went to the moon. Took the cash.”  

Of course, eventually, young boys and girls become young men and women and in Bombay Beach it’s The Lord of the Flies as they try to figure it all out on their own. Rage wavers in the air with the desert heat. Trash and despair line the streets. Violence erupts like steam from a rusted radiator. Every step is dusty and the horizon is an unbroken line a million miles away. 

“Went to the moon. Took the cash.”  

“Going to the moon” becomes the bitter euphemism for the mystery of the missing daddies. Over time anger and resentment of those abandoned seals their hearts against return. They make their own way and those men who left are not welcome back.

James Franco is in the first few minutes of the film as Roman Smalley, seen at the moment he’s deserting his family. Narratively cogent, but still a bit of a bait and switch in order to have a name star in an indie film. I hope he volunteered his time.

Rashida Jones plays Eva Smalley, young mother of two boys who becomes den mother to the town after Roman disappears. She turns her kitchen into a hair salon. The kids clean up the restaurant in town. In small measures, a bit at time, the town begins to be reconstituted, at least for this generation, for a while. 

This slice of life is seen through the eyes of Roman’s son Mickey, a young man played deliberately and expressively by Jeffrey Wahlberg. Mickey is betrayed again and again by his father, his friends, his town, and life as he tries to navigate this backwater dirt road to adulthood. Eventually, he must weigh the value of his life and relationships in Bombay Beach and make his own decision whether to stay.

Bruce Thierry Cheung adapted this story from a novel by Dean Bakopoulos, brilliantly changing the setting from Michigan to the California desert. The film is light on dialog and heavy on brutally beautiful cinematography painting the mood. It’s hard to imagine how the moon could feel any more remote than this forgotten place at the edge of a dead sea. You may find a second viewing helpful to take it all in, but this one is worth the effort.

Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2018) Directed by Bruce Thierry Cheung. Written by Dean Bakopoulos and Bruce Thierry Cheung. Starring James Franco, Rashida Jones, Jeffrey Wahlberg.

7 out of 10

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