The Light of the Moon is an ambiguous enough film title. Jessica M. Thompson’s movie ostensibly could be a werewolf coming-of-age independent film. A non-canonical sequel to Moonlight. Even a bone-headed YouTube short about community college bros flashing their buns to one another. It’s none of those things, thankfully. Instead, The Light of the Moon, while a whole lot better than any of the above pitches, will catch you equally off guard.
When you catch wind of an independent feature that puts sexual assault front and center, there’s an understood assumption that things will play out a certain way. Just like Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, an honest and honestly hysterical accidental pregnancy picture, subverted the expectations of the subject matter, The Light of the Moon rages against inherent presumptions one may hold about movies that center around sexual assault.
No, it’s not a comedy, even when Stephanie Beatriz’s Bonnie desperately (and uncomfortably) tries to make rape jokes mere days after her assault to lighten the mood. Bonnie’s tempered playfulness, her bluntness on the subject but general aversion to genuinely dealing with it, actually manages to tackle the fall-out regarding an assault in a more honest and head-on manner than most.
Where other features may zig, writer-director Jessica M. Thompson’s first feature, which should be noted competes for the SXSW Narrative Competition, zags. Bonnie is the manifestation of that mantra. A hard working weekend warrior, Bonnie is in a good place. Sure her relationship with frequently AWOL boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David) means more makeup sex than regular sex but she’s excelling at work, having taken the lead on a project with one of her firm’s bigger clients.
One dark evening, Bonnie is attacked on the way back from cocktails with co-workers. The scene plays out like a disorienting thwack to the skull. Personal and brutal, her trauma bleeds from the screen. Thompson finds horror without gratuity. Bonnie’s pleas, “Please, anything but that,” are heartbreaking in their clarity and simplicity. What purer sentiment could there be? Please. Anything but that.
The rest of The Light of the Moon explores the fallout. Like the aftermath of an atomic bomb, eruptions prove vastly damaging but radiation claims lingering survivors. The soul-rending fallout of this kind amounts to a violent burglary of authorship. Rape robs a person of the ability to define themselves.
Bonnie tries to sweep the incident under the rug. She doesn’t want her parents to know. She tells her co-workers she was mugged, guardedly joking that “they should see the other guy.” Only Matt is privy to her secret and his attempts to see her through this only irks his physically and mentally bruised girlfriend, who seeks a return to normalcy above all. She retains a brassy veneer but stormy turmoil brews within.
Bonnie doesn’t want to be part of, as she describes it, the sisterhood of rape victims. She doesn’t want anything to change and the acceptance that things might not ever be “the same” proves the most difficult part to process. It’s like her assaulter has forced an internal change (in addition to his man parts) upon her. To be different than who she was.
This is the story Thompson has come to tell. One about the parasitic nature of rape. Reduced down, Bonnie’s tale highlights the notion that rape is so much more than a physical act. It thieves victims of identity, of dignity. Of the ability to define yourself. Every corner of your life, from your career to consensual sexual experiences to just trying to get a latte at a coffee shop, everything is touched and, at least for somewhat, tainted.
Bonnie pushes against letting the experience affect her it because she doesn’t want to let “him” sink in any deeper. She doesn’t want his mark to spread. Unfolding at a police station, a sensitive and borderline infuriating scene reveals the disgusting societal norms where the rape victim finds herself on trial just as much as the rapist. Thompson delivers the scene with tenderness and rage.
Through it all, Beatriz is magnificent, offering a textured performance that throttles between grief, denial, strength, anger, always using her comedic chops to amplify the disconnect between Bonnie’s attitude and her circumstance. The unpredictable nature of her responses to various situation make her both relatable and real and though not all the supporting players have the same thespian oomph as Beatriz, Thompson uses them competently nonetheless. Though undeniably a hard watch, The Light of the Moon rewards viewers a tough won dose of empathy in impossible circumstance.
CONCLUSION: A confident study in victim’s guilt, Jessica M. Thompson’s ‘The Light of the Moon’ tells a challenging story with great nuance and fierce detail to character work as lead Stephanie Beatriz’s comedic impulses only serves to amplify the drama’s most heart-rending elements.