‘Don’t Come Back From the Moon’ Finds the Beauty in a Broken World

The struggles of a group of young people forced to grow up too fast are explored in delicate indie drama “Don’t Come Back from the Moon.” Jeffrey Wahlberg gives a breakthrough performance as Mickey Smalley, a teen who learns some important life lessons after his dissatisfied father, Roman (James Franco), abandons him and his little brother, Kolya (Zackary Arthur), at a gas station. Rashida Jones co-stars as the boys’ neglected mother, Eva.

While the mothers do what they have to do, mostly offscreen, the film follows the kids of the town as theygather scrap metal, party, and even fall in love. Mickey finds himself entangled with two independent young woman, first the bold Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), and then the maternal Jodie (Cheyenne Haynes). In both cases, the girls initiate a sexual relationship with Mickey, their assertiveness mostly likely the result of newfound freedoms.

“Don’t Come Back from the Moon” was adapted from Dean Bakopoulos’ novel “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. Director Bruce Thierry Cheung, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bakopoulos, recently spoke with Entertainment Voice. When asked what attracted him to the source material, he explained that he was intrigued by the concept of fathers abandoning their families en masse.

“It was a haunting story about fatherhood and kids and women filling in the gaps that [the absent men] leave behind.”

The theme of the novel also tapped into something a bit more personal for Cheung.

“Growing up, [abandonment] was a big fear of mine. I’m the child of immigrants, and I grew up in a city that I wasn’t from, and I was afraid of my parents moving on to somewhere else without me.”

Working closely with Cheung on this project was a frequent collaborator, Franco, who does double duty here as an actor/producer. The director had only positive things to say about the multi-hyphenate artist, whom he first met in 2008 while they were both studying film at NYU.

“He’s a very a giving person, in terms of the creative process. He’s a person who makes you feel empowered. If you’re a actor working with him, or a cinematographer, or [another crew member], he really gives you a lot of encouragement…. As a young filmmaker, it was very uplifting, great to get that energy from him.”

Jones, an actress mostly known for comedic roles, lets a different side of herself shine through here as Eva, who does her best to put on a brave face after Roman’s departure, opening a one-woman salon in her home and making sure her boys never go to bed hungry.

“She’s amazing,” said Cheung of Jones. “Her part is so hard to do. Her character unravels and puts herself back together over the movie. She was a very giving actress.”

The performances in “Don’t Come Back from the Moon” feel very natural and organic, so it comes as no surprise that Cheung allowed his actors to improvise when it felt right.

“[Jones] and James totally embraced that workflow. They were so in their characters that they were able to conjure up these profound moments off the cuff.”

But the film belongs to Wahlberg, and Cheung had nothing but praise for the gifted newcomer.

“He has real vulnerability to him. He acts tough and gentle at the same time.”

“Don’t Come Back from the Moon” is a visually stunning film, and not only because of Cheung’s background as a cinematographer. While the original novel is set in the Rust Belt, it was decided that the film would be shot in California for tax purposes, and this auspicious change in location led the director and his crew to the hidden gem that is Bombay Beach, a dilapidated former resort on the Inland Empire’s Salton Sea.

“We arrived in this town at sunset, and they sky was blue and pink, everywhere,” recalled Cheung. “Me and my cinematographer, we got out of the car, and we were just stunned by how gorgeous the place was.”

Cheung also found inspiration in the local people, many of whom ended being a part of the supporting cast, including Jeremiah Noe, who gives a powerful performance as Mickey’s uncle John, the only one of the runaway dads who gets an opportunity to explain himself. This stirring scene takes place in a location similar to the one in which Cheung discovered Noe, a dive bar in the middle of the desert.

“He was  a local musician. That night, we were just hanging out, and I told him about the concept of the movie, and he was very moved by it.”

Seeing that the story he wanted to tell resonated with Noe, Cheung asked him to improvise a scene with him right there over drinks.

“We improvised a scene in which he would say goodbye to his son knowing that he would leave him forever that day. It’s kind of weird thing to ask, but he had something to say about it. He performed this goodbye monologue off the top of his head that was so moving. I was tearing up, the bartender was tearing up, and the photographer filming it was tearing up. We were all in awe of him.”

At the end of it all, Mickey learns how to be a man and a father on his own in his broken universe.

“In this world, there’s hope still, and there’s life still,” said Cheung when asked what he hopes the viewer takes away from his film. “You can rebuild. Even in a film set in the desert where nothing grows, they can still make something out of their lives… We might dream of another life that could be out there, but there is beauty in making that life that you have work.”

Don’t Come Back from the Moon” opens Jan. 18 in select theaters and VOD.