Arms Up to Heaven (Movie Review: To The Moon)
I need to give you a little bit of background about how we do things around these parts. I’m privileged because the site I write for allows me to write about anything I want. Nobody has ever said, “Hey, how about not so much of this MCU nonsense?” Nobody has ever DMd me and proclaimed, “You will no longer write about horror movies if you know what’s good for you.” I’m grateful for that.
Despite having free reign to cover whatever strikes my fancy, I think it’s important to have some variety. It’s not only the spice of life, it’s the spice of film criticism. You don’t need me writing about superhero movies over and over and over. Neither do I, for that matter, As a result, I try to keep things interesting. I’m not always good at it, but I try to listen to my instincts, and if my instincts tell me there’s something interesting in a film, then I go for it.
The better news is when somebody grabs me by the back of the head and says, “This is cool, LOOK AT IT.” From time to time, I’ll get emails from publicists. I’ll get to know them a little, and when they ask if I’m interested in viewing a particular film, I’ll listen. It’s smart to do this because the quality of a film reflects upon them. Nobody wants to promote something that sucks, right?
One of the coolest is a publicist I’ll call Kara. She’s got exquisite taste in movies and while I don’t always review everything she sends my way, I consider everything. Recently, Kara emailed me about the indie film To the Moon. She said there was a lot packed into it and unsurprisingly, she wasn’t wrong.
It would not be an understatement to say that Dennis (Scott Friend) and Mia (Madeleine Morgenweck) are not doing great. You see, Dennis is a film actor, and his most recent film has been an atomic-type bomb. He’s also an addict and he’s been in withdrawal for about a week, which makes things less than awesome for the married couple. Mia is not without her own problems, as she’s a professional figure skater who’s suffered a career-ending injury. The icing on this cake of misery is that the two of them have been trying to conceive. They can’t.
To deal with all of this, they decide to leave the city and spend some time at a remote wooded cabin that’s been in Dennis’ family forever. The plan is for time away from the chaos, the lies, the hurt, and an attempt to reconnect. It should be possible, but on a walk with their dog, Dennis is distracted by the sight of a robed figure on the other side of a lake. Even in the throes of addiction, he realizes this is not a normal and chill thing to see in the middle of the woods.
Speaking of things that are neither normal nor chill, who should arrive at the cabin but Roger (Will Brill). He’s Dennis’ brother, and he’s a little…well… Okay, the yellow jumpsuit and cowboy boots don’t help. Neither does his spiritual jibber-jabber, his penchant for just slightly ignoring boundaries, and his predilection for half-truths.
It must run in the family, since Dennis is not one hundred percent honest, either. Maybe his film career is not quite as robust as he let on and maybe addiction has been dragging him down. Perhaps worst of all is that the relationship between Dennis and Roger is more fraught than either will let on, but how much does it matter if it’s all in Dennis’ head?
It’s always fascinating to see a director’s first film. Sometimes they’re okay, sometimes they’re…ah, less okay. Once in a while, there will be an assured debut and you’ll think to yourself, “This person could have a pretty fascinating career.” That’s how I felt watching To the Moon, the debut of director Scott Friend. His pacing is brisk when it needs to be and deliberate when necessary. He also does an excellent job of shifting between tones, and the film at times feels like a dramedy, a romance, a pinch of suspense, and a dash of psychedelia. Underneath it all is a slow feeling of unease, a sense that something isn’t right.
It’s not uncommon for the director to also be the screenwriter in their debut feature. That’s the case here and Friend has written a strong and clever script. He knows that if you’ve ever been in any kind of relationship with an addict, they’ll lie to you with a frequency that would stun most presidential candidates. It’s smart writing as Dennis lies to Mia about a lot. He lies to Roger. He lies to himself, and Friend gets that the stretching and breaking of the truth is the core of the script. That’s why we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is real. For the most part, Friend’s characterization is three-dimensional. While there was a decision made late in the film that I found highly unbelievable, the characters behave consistently — or inconsistently, as the case may be.
There are only three members of the cast, which means that everyone has to be giving one hundred percent. Madeleine Morgenweck’s Mia is the character we feel the most sympathy for, as she’s trying to support her wildly flawed spouse. Morgenweck never plays Mia as a doormat. She’s dealing with her own trauma while trying to help Dennis heal. But should she? That was the question I kept asking with Scott Friend’s performance as Dennis. At his core, Dennis is an addict, and we’re never quite sure if he’s gone beyond morality. At times he’s a sweet and charismatic guy, and at times he’s a sarcastic dick. Though the performance by Will Brill as Roger explains a great deal as to why Dennis is so on edge. I never quite got a handle on Roger. Is he someone who’s genuinely had spiritual enlightenment and feels like boundaries are somewhat optional? Is there something more malevolent to him? I suspect that’s the point and Brill believably sells the ambivalence.
If you have people in your life that have a connection to interesting art, you should listen to them. To the Moon is a film that I almost blew off. I’ve already seen films about troubled couples, secluded cabins, or all of the above. Not like this, and To the Moon is smart, surreal, and a very promising debut for Scott Friend. Thanks for the recommendation, Kara. I owe you one.