Don’t Come Back from the Moon tells the story of a dying California town that’s little more than a grid of caravans and mobile homes parked permanently next to a receding lake in the Mojave.
The Mojave Desert of the US Southwest has captured the imaginations of artists, visionaries and utopians of every stripe for centuries. Deserts engender magic, madness and a keen sense of the unknown. They are particularly central for the so-called “Western” world, as each of the major monotheistic religious traditions were born from the desert wilderness of Arabia. There is just a sense, then, that the desert is a liminal zone, where the material and the spiritual, the mundane and the sublime, meet and cross-pollinate (or cross-contaminate, depending on one’s particular philosophical bent).
Using the desert as its narrative center, Don’t Come Back from the Moon tells the story of a dying California town that’s little more than a grid of caravans and mobile homes parked permanently next to a receding lake in the Mojave. Formerly a tourist hub in the golden age of the American automobile, the town is kept on life support by a single factory employing most of the resident men. Then the factory closes. The film’s opening act ends with the sudden, piecemeal disappearance of the town’s adult men; each flees the area, occasionally leaving a brief note but without any instructions for how to reach them in the future. Those left behind refer to this exodus as going to the Moon. A town with no jobs, no men and no hope will quickly vanish, becoming just another ghost town on the frontier.
But this is a desert fable, in the capital-G-Grand vein of the Hebrew Bible, rather than a Rust Belt tragedy. This is the Mojave, not Youngstown, Ohio. There is something ineffable in this California town, something that will propel it to keep going, not flourishing but also resisting rot. Is it that mystical sand, burning red in the sunrise? Or the dry air that preserves the ruins of past attempts to render this deathly place hospitable? It does not matter; these people shall persist.
The plot traces Mickey Smalley (Jeffrey Wahlberg, the nephew of Mark), a 16-year-old just beginning to flourish into maturity. He mostly runs around with the other newly-fatherless children of the area, awash in the bacchanalian freedom of being able to break into the local liquor store and celebrate an all-night rager when the urge strikes them. They linger on, both the kids and their mothers. They demolish abandoned homes for scrap, open impromptu hair parlors for spending change and pass the days staring into the endless, sandy void. Much like ancient desert fables, food seems to enter the town as if through magic (or divine logistics, depending on one’s philosophical bent). Seemingly set in the early ‘90s—cassette tapes, boxy TVs and no cell phones or computers—the film is also somehow timeless and universal, and much like a parable even in its brevity, barely clocking in at 75 minutes.
If the film is indeed a parable, it is one about family, endurance and faith. It is about the will to continue in the face of unforgiving and uncontrollable circumstance. It is the story of Moses but also of Ulysses, of rote daily toil but with a sense of grandeur in the background. There is a basic courage in being human, in taking action while simultaneously possessing the gift of consciousness, in doing things while knowing that causality is a governing force of life. What simpler metaphors for such blind faith in one’s own agency than the Moon—how dare we dream of going there—and the Desert—how dare we think we can live there. Don’t Come Back from the Moon dresses this simple, primordial message up in beautiful cinematography (that is director Bruce Thierry Cheung’s day job), which makes it a great film in addition to a worthwhile story.