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‘The Moon & Back’ wrestles with grief, creativity, adolescence

“The Moon & Back” (2022). Cast: Isabel May, Missi Pyle, Nat Faxon, P.J. Byrne, Miles Gutierrez-Riley, Taiv Lee, Roman Michael, Molly Jackson, Riley Madison Fuller. Director: Leah Bleich. Screenplay: Leah Bleich. Web site.

Where do we turn when the bottom falls out? That’s difficult enough at any age, but what is one to do when going through an impressionable time of life, such as adolescence? The coming of age considerations that teens face are often burdensome enough in themselves. However, when they’re compounded by a significant loss, starting over may seem impossible. Such are the conditions that a devastated young woman must figure out for herself in the new comedy-drama, “The Moon & Back.”

When Peter and Diane Gilbert (Nat Faxon, Missi Pyle) got married, they were madly in love with one another. In fact, Peter endearingly told his new bride that he would indeed love her to the moon and back. And later, when the couple welcomed the arrival of their new daughter, Lydia (Riley Madison Fuller), that love expanded even further, filling their home with palpable, undeniable warmth. This pervasive affection was further enhanced by an enduring sense of creativity and playfulness, qualities primarily put in place by Peter, a move that infused the family’s household with positive, inspiring, mutually supportive vibes. The bond between father and daughter grew particularly strong under these conditions, with each of them becoming adoringly devoted to one another.

However, when a teenage Lydia (Isabel May) entered high school, circumstances drastically changed as Peter’s health began faltering, eventually leading to his untimely death. It goes without saying that Lydia was devastated. She withdrew into herself, falling into a relentlessly unremarkable holding pattern. And, after a year of this, as Lydia began her senior year, she seemed more lost than ever.

Such is the prologue of this film, told largely through simulated home videotape archives. As the main story opens, Diane tries coaxing Lydia out of her malaise. After all, the time is fast approaching when they’ll need to make some decisions about Lydia’s college plans. Diane initially approaches the subject tactfully, but, given Lydia’s grief-stricken state of mind, she’s ambivalent about continuing her studies, an attitude that worries mom. She wants her daughter to further her education, despite the financial hardships it will place on the household, but she’s met with intractable indifference. Lydia has intentionally put her life on hold, and Diane wonders whether she’ll ever start moving forward again.

Circumstances soon change, however, when Lydia stumbles upon a half-written sci-fi screenplay that Peter had been working on prior to his death. She’s intrigued by the script and decides that making a movie based on this material would make for a fitting tribute to her dad. It’s not exactly the plan that Diane had in mind, but, if it motivates Lydia to start doing something with her life again, she’ll willingly throw her support behind it.

Thus begins Lydia’s experiment to find herself. Having never made a movie before, she’s embarking on a project in which she truly doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. But that doesn’t stop her from launching into this exploration of the unknown. And so, armed with only a video camera, a half-written script, a handful of money and a whole lot of gumption, she sets off on this journey of discovery.

Lydia is by no means alone in this endeavor; she has ample support from a ragtag array of backers who are truly in her corner and want to see her succeed, especially since they know how much this project means to her personally. She receives zealous backing from her high school guidance counselor, Mr. Martin (P.J. Byrne); classmates Simon (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), Josh (Taiv Lee) and Mariana (Molly Jackson); her neighbor, George (Roman Michael); and, of course, her mother. It’s indeed encouraging to see how readily they all rally to her cause, aptly illustrating that the assistance we need somehow manages to materialize when we need it most. And, as events unfold, it becomes apparent that Lydia really needs it.

Enthusiasm aside, Lydia has her work cut out for her on this project. Having no experience as a filmmaker, she has to improvise much of what she does as she goes along. This is further complicated by not having a finished script for the picture, prompting her to figure out where she ultimately wants to take the story. Then there’s the pressure to be true to her dad’s intent, which is considerable, since he never finished the screenplay, leaving her to intuit where she thinks the story should go to fulfill his vision.

What’s more, undertaking a venture like this at a time of life that’s fraught with its own inherent challenges can be particularly daunting. The coming of age process can be difficult enough in itself without the added stress and anxiety that often accompany endeavors like this. And the absence of the one person who one would most likely turn to for advice at a time like this – in this case, Lydia’s dad – can be even more trying. But the fact that the budding auteur is willing to take on all of these challenges simultaneously speaks volumes about just how inherently ambitious she truly is. That’s a big step for someone who not long before had trouble getting off the dime to get on with her life. Indeed, with determination like that, there’s no telling what else she might be able to accomplish – maybe even venture to the moon and back.

Moving forward when we suffer a debilitating setback can be quite a burden. The feeling of being deflated is often more than we can handle. And, as Lydia’s experience in the wake of her father’s death illustrates, it’s a painful ordeal that takes away much of our enthusiasm for wanting to do anything. So where do we go from there?

The most obvious answer is looking for a way to pick up the pieces and carry on. But, before we can do that, we first have to believe in the notion that such a step is even possible. And, when we’re weighed down by such palpable emotions as grief, longing and despair, mustering up the faith and conviction to foster such beliefs is, at the very least, unnerving, if not overwhelming. Thus, getting past such a discouraging outlook is essential if we ever hope to get our lives back on track, particularly when it comes to employing the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience. It’s unknown whether Lydia has ever heard of this school of thought, but, if she ever hopes to make something meaningful and fulfilling out of her life, she had better consider it as a means for reaching that goal.

Lydia is starting from a difficult place in this regard. Not only does she not know how to fulfill her objectives, she can’t even envision what they might be. By not knowing what we hope to achieve, we don’t even know where to start, let alone how to reach a desired destination. So the question once again becomes, where do we go from here?

Since the primary purpose of one’s existence is to create it, anyone who is experiencing what Lydia is going through might want to consider that objective as a starting point. In essence, this involves looking for something of a creative nature that will generate a sense of personal satisfaction. It gives us something to believe in and an undertaking into which we can direct our energies, and virtually anyone who has embarked on such an endeavor can testify to that effect. The key, of course, is finding such a project and being willing to pour ourselves into it, a practice that generates the beliefs necessary to make it possible.

Lydia Gilbert (Isabel May, left) seeks to get her life back on track after suffering a devastating personal loss in director Leah Bleich’s delightful coming of age comedy-drama, “The Moon & Back.” Photo courtesy of Prodigium Pictures.

That’s precisely what happens for Lydia when she finds her dad’s unfinished screenplay. The discovery sparks her interest in multiple ways – it gives her something to focus on, it gives her something to which she can provide a sense of completion and it gives her a way to pay tribute to Peter, something she needs to do to get past her grief and provide a much-needed sense of closure. Its inherent artistic nature also embodies the very notion of creativity, what lies at the core of the conscious creation process. By tackling this project, Lydia has a valuable opportunity to get back in step with her purpose for living, to rejoin the existence of which she is a part.

It helps immensely that she has so many backers in her corner, too. Their support provides validation for this undertaking, not only as a means to honor her father, but also to provide direction for getting her life back on track and infusing it with a much-needed sense of purpose (one that could even lead to the development of a vocation, giving her the focus that has been so lacking in her life for a long time). It comes at a significant time in her life, too, considering the often-challenging conditions that arise when one goes through the coming of age process. Her movie project serves as something of a buffer against those considerations, helping her to grow and mature into adulthood and to keep petty adolescent distractions at bay that might otherwise consume a disproportionate amount of her consciousness and attention.

Perhaps most importantly, though, this venture enables the healing process to go forward, something Lydia desperately needs. It enables her to adopt a new perspective on her reality, a change that allows her to employ a new overall outlook on life, one that carries the potential to radically shift the nature of the existence she experiences. This is not to suggest that putting her old life behind her requires her to erase memories and emotions about her father; rather, it means altering her frame of mind so that she can put that portion of her life in a new context, one that retains the best of that time without preventing her from moving forward into a new way of living. As the conscious creation process maintains, everything is in a constant state of becoming, but that evolution can be thwarted when we implement beliefs that intentionally seek to derail that process, as she has been doing for some time. It’s nice to see that she’s found a way to eliminate that stagnation, one that has restored her forward progress, made it possible to contextualize her grieving and allowed her to once again have some fun in her life. And all it took was implementing a little creativity.

Coming of age can be difficult enough in itself, but, when we lose someone who has been a source of valuable guidance in the midst of that process, the result can be shattering. Under conditions like that, it can be easy to lose one’s way. So it is for Lydia, who needs to chart a new course for herself. And, when she does, she learns that an important part of coming of age means letting go of what no longer serves us and being willing to strike out on our own – even leaving behind the source of inspiration who helped us get so far. Writer-director Leah Bleich’s charming comedy-drama provides viewers with a refreshingly distinctive take on material typical of this genre, providing just the right amount of heart tugs but without overdoing it, all the while serving up both laughs and serious moments that successfully avoid the clichés often found in stories like this. The narrative manages to stay on track quite well, despite a few meandering lulls, keeping the storytelling crisp and economical. And, given the excellent, incisive, edgy character development here, this offering strikes me very much as being the movie that “Lady Bird” (2017) was striving to be but could never quite get right. Indeed, “The Moon & Back” is a fun, pleasant, enjoyable little diversion, but it’s by no means a lightweight, just what a film of this stripe should be.

Unfortunately, finding “The Moon & Back” at the moment may be a little difficult. The picture has primarily played the film festival circuit, and news of a general distribution in theaters and/or online has not yet been forthcoming. Nevertheless, viewers interested in this offering would serve themselves well by catching this delightful charmer if a screening opportunity were to present itself, especially in communities that stage film festivals.

No one wants to endure a devastating loss. Such tragedies are difficult enough in themselves, and envisioning what comes in their aftermath can be frightening, both in terms of their impact and what might be involved in going through them. Yet situations like this are one of the inevitabilities to which we’re all subjected at some point in our lives. We may not like having to undergo them, but they nevertheless provide us with an opportunity to learn how to respond to adversity. They test our ability to cope. They test our resiliency to bounce back from these situations. And they teach us how to be creative and flexible in overcoming hardship. There may even be the proverbial silver linings buried within them. No matter what results, however, they afford us the chance to grow as individuals, and that can prove exceedingly valuable in the long run, a heartfelt gift bequeathed to us from those who have left us, one that can help us to become who we were meant to be.

Copyright © 2022-2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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