Bruce Thierry Cheung’s Don’t Come Back from the Moon stands out less as a coming-of-age story or a portrait of economic malaise than it does as a simple, extended work of tonal discipline. In viewing the movie, you float from scene to scene on softy, grainy imagery, much of it captured during the magic hour. Cheung’s aesthetic command is laudable but often static, making his narrative feel inconsequential.
In a small, sparsely populated, rundown desert town (it looks like Salton City), the patriarchs keep disappearing. Frustrated by the ever dwindling job prospects, they light out for greener pastures without notice, leaving behind families who wonder whether they’re gone for good or just getting back on their feet so that their wives and children may someday rejoin them. One abandoned boy, Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg) finds himself torn between teenage shenanigans like getting drunk and falling in love with another forsaken kid, Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), and his sudden grown-up concerns like helping to provide for his younger brother (Zackary Arthur) and his now single mom (Rashida Jones).
Don’t Come Back’s most clever and subtle conceit is the way it emulates science fiction despite its low-fi, ground level setting. After one departed father leaves a short, cryptic note on his way out, the kids starting referring to these paternal disappearances as “going to the moon.” Even though the true reasons for the depleted dad population are empirical and pathetic, the air of the supernatural begins to creep in (accompanied fittingly by the blips of neo-synth pop that adorn the soundtrack). Continuing in this vein, the town itself begins to resemble a post-apocalyptic dystopia, with barren desert, twisted scrap metal and vacated, rotted out buildings in every direction. These kids can do whatever they want, whiling away the rest of their days in a place with no future. They have freedom but not options and certainly no hope.
Despite Cheung’s ambitious and quietly outlandish scheme, most of what the characters do is relatable in its quotidian banality. There are so many grilled cheese sandwiches made and consumed, it becomes a bit of a motif, a ritual as economically practical as it is weighted with connotations of youthful domestic comfort.
Don’t Come Back from the Moon is a largely superficial affair. Most of the performances, with the exception of Jones’ heartbreaking resilience, are thin. And Wahlberg’s flat narration is filled with on-the-nose observations like, “With all the men gone, we boys became men,” a pointless remark given that Cheung makes that notion visually clear in the way the boys settle into the abandoned neighborhood bar as a hangout, wearily drooping on their stools like worn out pensioners. Still, it’s useful to remind yourself from time to time that cinema is made to deliver, among other things, sensory delights. A little superficiality, when executed well, is more than enough excuse to go to the movies.