The Moon & Back is Leah Bleich’s debut feature film, shot over nine days in November 2020 on a $50,000 budget granted through the Six Feet Apart Experiment filmmaking competition.
This heartfelt coming-of-age story stars Isabel May as Lydia Gilbert, a high school senior struggling to find her way following the death of her father the previous year. She and her mother are increasingly at odds with one another, living in a house they can no longer afford. Lacking in friends, Lydia spends lunchtimes with her guidance counsellor Mr Martin – a dynamic which parallels the one between Nadine and Mr Bruner in The Edge of Seventeen (2016).
Having distanced herself from many people, Lydia feels more lost than ever until she finds a folder on her father’s computer containing a space opera film script which he wrote but never finished. Equipped with only his VHS camera, Lydia decides to bring her father’s script to life – insisting that this project will help her secure a scholarship for film school.
Coming of age involves charting her own path, without the inspiration behind the film to guide her, but she cannot do everything alone. After an awkward reunion with her estranged cinephile friend Simon, a round of auditions, and a bake sale to raise funds, production on the film commences.
Throughout the filmmaking process, Lydia grieves her father, navigates her relationships with Simon and her mother, and overburdens herself and others. These challenges evoke frustration, tempting her to quit at multiple points. However, with some perseverance and guidance from those around her, she finds the motivation and inspiration she needs to complete the film. In a particularly entertaining sequence, Simon teaches Lydia about filmmaking through acting out memorable scenes from classic films with her – rather than passively watching the films together.
Filmmaking helps Lydia to heal her wounds and relationships by improving her understanding of the world. As her mother sagely tells her, “we don’t get to hit pause, we just have to keep moving and let go and hope that that happy ending isn’t our last one”. Lydia realises that life can continue to be fulfilling and meaningful despite the loss she has suffered. The ending she writes for the film immortalises her family’s happiness, reflecting her desire to live hopefully, surrounded by those she cares about both in person and in spirit.
May is a compelling lead, giving a sensitive and grounded performance as a lovably blunt teenager. The passion of the supporting cast further elevates the material. Validating the messiness of human emotion, The Moon & Back trusts the audience to form their own judgements of the characters. There is a good balance of fun, light-hearted moments and emotionally charged scenes which honour the film’s more serious themes. The early 2000s aesthetic and warm colour palette are visually delightful, providing a healthy dose of nostalgia, while the film’s incisive explorations of grief, growth, and relationships maintain its relevance to today’s audience.
The Moon & Back is currently available to watch as part of the Portland Film Festival’s online offering.