Lydia’s father died a year ago of a sudden illness and she’s still not handling it particularly well. She’s quick to lash out at her mother Diane (Missi Pyle) with the slightest provocation. An appealingly quirky high school senior, Lydia (Isabel May) is also detached from her fellow classmates, spending her lunch hour everyday eating with her well-meaning but overwhelmed guidance counselor Mr. Martin (P.J. Byrne). This is a good place to be, as she’s also made pretty much zero plans for college. Then one day, she’s going through old files on her father’s computer and finds something she never expected: a screenplay. She decides to grab her dad’s old camcorder and make his screenplay into a movie (partially as a tribute to her dad, partially to score a college scholarship) but doesn’t have the slightest idea where to start. So she goes to Simon (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), a stereotypically dorky member of the A/V club and a childhood friend of Lydia’s before they had a falling out. But there’s a problem: his screenplay? It’s for a multi-million-dollar space opera. Oh, and it doesn’t have an ending.
Death and grief loom large over The Moon & Back so I feel it’s important to point out upfront that it’s chiefly a coming-of-age teen comedy, and a hilarious and effective one at that. Lydia has popular girl good looks but an introvert’s awkwardness; she’s a bundle of neuroses that make her so relatable—and May is so engaging in her performance—that you don’t hold her occasional cruelties against her because she’s so clearly a good-hearted person still figuring this life thing out. The whole process of making the low-, er, I mean, no-budget sci-fi epic also offers plenty of laffs from Simon’s quickie film theory seminar to the awkward auditions to the cheesy dialogue and homemade costumes.
But as much as it makes you laugh, The Moon & Back also tugs on the heartstrings, hard. It’s funny that writer/director Leah Bleich has Simon explain that the best way to learn to make movies is by stealing from the best, and then she opens her movie by doing just that, and succeeds wildly at it. The opening sequence is Lydia’s entire relationship with her dad (played by the charmingly nerdy Nat Faxon, who was basically born for roles like this) as told through home movies, from her parents’ wedding to her birth through her childhood and to his unexpected illness and death. It is, basically, the opening of Up changed from a husband-and-wife relationship to a father-and-child relationship, and (perhaps shockingly) it is just as heartbreaking. Lydia’s memory of her dad lingers over the whole movie, but Bleich is wise in how carefully she doles out actually seeing Faxon as the dad, and how only being seen in VHS-quality snippets keeps him at a nostalgic remove from the present day. Lydia’s relationship with her mom is an emotionally complicated one—she obviously doesn’t literally hold her mother responsible for her dad’s death, yet she punishes her for it as if it was her fault just the same—and things get heavy as they lurch toward patching things up.
I keep going back to the opening sequence in my mind, and how expertly it sets the tone for this movie—equal parts playful and funny and sad and wistful. As a parent, the themes of loss and what we may leave behind to our children obviously hit close to home, but Bleich does such an excellent job of centering the film on Lydia’s perspective that I think it would be just as relatable for teens like Lydia that are fumbling their way into adulthood. A big portion of the credit for that goes to Isabel May, who doesn’t hit a false note in her performance as Lydia in the entire movie. She is so, so good in this. Pretty much everything about this movie is so good that I have to struggle to come up with something I didn’t like about it, which is that some of the nerd jokes played at Simon’s expense are a little too Big Bang Theory. But that’s the minor-est of minor complaints, and just proves how much Bleich and company did right.
I’ll admit I’m a big softie in general, but this movie made me legit, tears-running-down-my-cheeks cry, more than once, and each was due to a sea of emotions the movie conjured up—not lazy emotional manipulation, but real connection to Lydia’s story. This movie hit home for me in just about every way. If you’re a parent, if you’re a teen, or if you remember the emotional storm that being a teenager can conjure up, this film is highly recommended. | Jason Green
The Moon & Back will screen at Galleria 6 Cinemas (30 St. Louis Galleria St., Richmond Heights) on Sunday, November 6th at 4:30pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film is also available to watch virtually through the end of the festival on November 13th. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF website.