An optimist sees a glass as half full; a pessimist sees it as half empty. A nihilist will dump the water from the glass and marvel at the emptiness. Bruce Thierry Cheung’s Don’t Come Back from the Moon is a study of such emptiness.
In a small desert community, after the one local plant closes, the fathers leave town, one by one. Some may be looking for work elsewhere; others are just admitting defeat in life. The fathers are referred to as having gone to the moon. In the aftermath, their children must struggle with the abandonment. They act out with a mixture of anarchism, anger, distrust, and fear.
The story is told by sixteen year-old Mickey (Jeffery Wahlberg), whose father (James Franco, in a brief appearance) has set off for a new start. His mother (Rashida Jones) has gone through all the new starts she can handle, so the rest of the family stays behind. Mickey and the other kids left behind spend their days and nights in mischief, drinking, and “harvesting” abandoned homes for scrap they can sell. They live in the moment, without thought of what might lie ahead of them. There seems to be no future. Mickey connects with Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), and they begin to form a bond, until her father returns seeking to take her with him to Nebraska where he has found work.
Filmed in the area around the Salton Sea in California, the film is full of ruins of the past grandeur (or hoped for grandeur) of the community. The world we see in this film has rusted and eroded away leaving only reminders of the dreams of those who came there. That serves as a metaphor for the lives of the children left behind. It is a world without dreams—only a weather-beaten past. Many of the scenes focus on the physical emptiness of the location, which lead us to see the emptiness in the lives of the characters.
Emptiness is one of the ways some have understood the term “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. When Qoheleth repeatedly tells us that “all is vanity”, it is a reference to the sense that life can often seem empty of meaning. Should we count Qoheleth among the nihilists who would show us the empty glass? Certainly, there are some who would read Ecclesiastes in that light.
There is a sense that the characters in the film have lived in this world of emptiness for so long that they have no concept of what might bring fullness (or even half-fullness) to their lives. For them this empty world is normal—perhaps even beautiful. That may be why they choose to stay. The pack of children promise each other that they will never go to the moon. They would hear Qoheleth’s “all is vanity” as an unemotional description. I think it should be heard as lament in search of something to bring life and meaning.
When the time comes for Mickey to decide how he will choose to live his life, the options are to continue in the emptiness that is so familiar or searching out the possibilities of life elsewhere. But can he find anything better somewhere else, or is the whole world really as empty as the moon?
Photos courtesy of Brainstorm Media