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The Moon and Back (2024) and the Beauty of Charting Your Own Course

The Moon and Back movie poster

I think we can all agree that our teenage years were some of the most unnecessarily overcomplicated stages of our lives. You’re at that point where you’re not a child, but not quite an adult. Rather, you feel just kind of stuck in the middle. And high school is always a difficult arena to navigate, what with friendship drama, college applications, SAT scores, and carving out your path in life (which usually doesn’t pan out as you wished). Director and writer Leah Bleich’s newest film The Moon and Back addresses those difficulties and much more.

Lydia Gilbert (played by Isabel May) is a senior in high school who doesn’t know what to do with her life. When Lydia was younger, her father passed away from cancer leaving a hole in her heart. To help cope, she records videos on her dad’s VHS camcorder. Her single mom, Diane, wants her to apply to college and move out but she doesn’t want to, citing the costs of living. At the behest of her school counselor Mr. Martin (played by P.J. Byrne), Lydia decides to apply for a scholarship at NYU (her father’s alma mater) by making a film describing who she is. She discovers an unfinished movie script from her late father and decides to make the script into a film.  

Isabel May as Lydia in The Moon and Back

I would describe The Moon and Back as the most indie feeling film even for an indie film, and I mean that in the best possible way. You can feel the passion, creativity and love put into the project. From the lighting, the sound and the music, everything is crafted with the sole purpose of enhancing Lydia’s character arc. For example, the soundtrack really brings this warm summer feeling full of smiles and carefree fun. You not only feel at ease, but also uplifted. Conversely, the soundtrack can also rip that feeling away in a second, leaving you feeling as if your entire reality has been shattered. And there are even times when the score makes you feel nostalgic for a simpler time, when life around you wasn’t so hectic and complicated.  

If you enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, then you’ll certainly enjoy The Moon and Back. Leah Bleich follows a similar formula, but takes her own creative spin on the classic coming of age story. Lydia’s depression stemming from losing her dad leads to self-isolation. We see her sitting alone at school and filming her peers at a distance, never being part of the action herself. She even spends her lunch time with Mr. Martin rather than trying to make new friends or even reconnect with old ones. And back home, tensions arise between mother and daughter when Diane begins spending time with a neighbor, George. And despite reconnecting with a childhood friend, Simon, she still struggles to be a good friend. Despite this, Simon sticks by her and does whatever he can to help Lydia grow out of her shell.  

Lydia and Simon in The Moon and Back

Speaking of Simon, I can’t get enough of his patience and perseverance in helping Lydia. He joins her to help make her film and even cheers her up when she’s in a depressive episode. It’s so refreshing to see such a wholesome display of friendship between two people of the opposite sex. Movies and TV shows are notorious for pairing its two leads together, even if they’ve never shown any romantic chemistry or when it’s not appropriate (looking at you, Avatar: The Last Air Bender). Lydia is not emotionally mature enough to handle being in a relationship. Could something happen between the two later down the road? Possibly. But at this point, Lydia needs friends more than anything. We rarely do see simple depictions of friendship between two characters of the opposite sex, so it’s really refreshing to see Simon and Lydia as just friends and not a couple.  

I have to also give major props to the acting. Isabel May, who you may know from the series 1883 absolutely nails the socially awkwardness and tumultuous angst as Lydia. You can feel her anger and frustration at her life in addition to her unease about her future. She not only can tackle the emotionally heavy scenes, but also the lighthearted scenes with co-star Miles Gutierrez (who played Simon), making their character friendship all the more believable. Not to mention how perfect the chemistry was between Isabel and Miles, further enhancing how natural their characters felt. But besides Isabel May, my favorite performance has to be P.J. Byrne as Mr. Martin. For those who are fans of The Legend of Korra, you might remember him as Bolin. P.J. adds layers of nuance and humor into his role as Mr. Martin. He is initially introduced as the mentor who guides the main hero (or in this case, heroine) to greatness. However, as the movie unfolds, he becomes far more than just a supporting character. When Lydia needs to hold auditions for her movie, he happily allows them to use the school auditorium to host auditions. And when he learns that they still don’t have a cast, he volunteers to read for one of the parts (whilst demonstrating his voice over talent). It’s so refreshing to see a teacher who actually guides and leads their students rather than just sit behind a desk and lifelessly grades papers.

Lydia and her mom in The Moon and Back

As someone who went through a similar tragedy as Lydia, I really appreciate Leah Bleich’s sensitive and careful approach about how the loss of a parent can impact someone’s teen years. The Moon and Back was made on a budget of $50,000 and was shot during lockdown. With that said, I’m very impressed by the finished product. Bolstered by stellar and emotional performances by May, Gutierrez and Byrne, along with a heartwarming soundtrack, The Moon and Back is undoubtedly one of my favorite coming of age stories I’ve seen on screen. So before you fly to the moon and play among the stars, go give this movie a watch, you won’t be disappointed!

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