An indie with one foot in the netting of social realism and another in the terrain of desolation fables, “Don’t Come Back From The Moon” offers up a tale of mass disappearance born of economic hardship: fathers in a depressed small town leaving their wives and children like something out of a Greek tragedy or a post-apocalyptic story. Or, as one could readily imagine, out of headlines from America’s rapidly dying, labor-driven towns.
In the case of this lyrical, if uneven, adaptation of Dean Bakopoulos’s 2005 novel, “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon,” featuring James Franco and Rashida Jones in supporting roles, that means a kind of reorienting of society around those left behind, namely the teenagers who must rapidly grow up (whether responsibly or irresponsibly). A Rust Belt-set book relocated onscreen to the evocative barrenness of Southern California’s Salton Sea community, this story is, in cinematographer-turned-director Bruce Thierry Cheung’s hands, told with a dramatically shaky poignance.
Our primary guide to this narrated memory piece is wiry, kind-eyed Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg), who is 16 the summer that his dad Roman (Franco, also a producer) abandons him and younger brother Kolya (Zackary Arthur) at a gas station one night after a driving lesson. It’s never entirely clear whether the bolting males have left to find work, or even if they intend to return, but the peculiar shamelessness of the phenomenon spurs the local kids to create a euphemism for what their dads did: They call it “going to the moon.”
Initially, a sense of freedom and spirited adaptation grips everyone, even those whose bitterness is always just below the surface. Mickey’s mother, Eva (Jones), rises from her couch-sleeping funk to sell haircuts from home, while he and his friends trade scrap metal from abandoned building sites for various goods, and party at night like, well, adults letting off steam after a day’s work supporting themselves and their families. A romance even develops between Mickey and independent-minded Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), who bond over shared feelings of good-riddance toward their vacated fathers.
But, of course, it’s not so cut-and-dried when you still love the one who hurt you, and as “Don’t Come Back” continues, the promise of reunion complicates matters, while the consequences of moving on — as when Eva takes a liking to a young man in town — force Mickey to face the irresoluteness of his situation.
Emotionally, though, “Don’t Come Back,” which Cheung wrote with Bakopoulos, isn’t as sticky as you’d like it to be, since Cheung’s method is to vibe everything with tone-poem editing, moody emo/synth music (courtesy of Johnny Jewel) and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj’s tactile, restless visuals roaming the desert’s beauty and its inhabitants’ restiveness. It’s an atmosphere piece first and foremost, and an effective one. But the characters, particularly the teens, feel primarily like micro-vignette archetypes of scattershot resonance rather than flesh-and-blood figures forming a tapestry in a taut tale. Too often narration becomes a coloring crutch to explain what should be obvious (“With all the men gone, boys became men”) from a given performance or scene.
That being said, Wahlberg does an admirable job even as he struggles to capture all that’s roiling inside Mickey, and Jones and Steinacker do the most with their allotted screen time — especially Steinacker’s swerve toward cautious empathy when her father (Robert Scott Crane) returns, ready to make amends.
If “Don’t Come Back From the Moon” isn’t entirely successful, it means well as an engaged, considerate tour of a recognizably broken landscape. Men do leave, and those around them adjust, a truism about life as reliable as that impossible ball in the night sky, seemingly so close and yet so obviously far away.
‘Don’t Come Back From The Moon’
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD