“The Light of the Moon” is a lucid, clinical, and wholly necessary drama about life after rape, and the while the film is far more watchable than it might sound (thanks in large part to Stephanie Beatriz’s rich and involving lead performance), viewers should know what’s in store for them. At the same time, “trigger warning” doesn’t feel like the right term, or at least not a sufficient one. While it’s inevitable that writer-director Jessica M. Thompson’s exquisitely sensitive feature debut will stimulate the traumas that sexual assault survivors have experienced, that kind of seems like the point.
Beatriz — as human here as she is a puffed up caricature on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — stars as Bonnie, a Williamsburg architect who’s essentially living the Platonic ideal of millennial existence. She works a creative job in an open warehouse that’s located within biking distance of the spacious, book-filled loft she shares with her very affectionate boyfriend, Matt (“Cloverfield” casualty Michael Stahl-David). She has clear glasses, a gay best friend (Conrad Ricamora) who loves Tina Turner and torturing himself, and all the personal agency of a woman in the 21st century.
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And then she gets raped by a stranger on her walk home from a night out with friends (Matt was out with clients, a fact that soon becomes a source of enormous guilt and responsibility). The assault is harrowing, but not especially graphic. A hooded man grabs Bonnie off the street, snatching her so fast that her headphones pop off and land on the sidewalk. She’s dragged into an alley, pushed up against a wall, and penetrated from behind. Thompson’s camera stays on Beatriz’s face as the actress’ eyes search around in their sockets, looking for something that makes sense. It doesn’t last long, but it also lasts forever. When Bonnie steps out of the alley, her headphones are still on the sidewalk.
The rest of the movie is devoted to the nitty-gritty of Bonnie getting her life back together, whatever that means. Gracefully threading the needle between the specific and the symbolic (“I’m not anybody,” Bonnie insists), Thompson takes us through the hours that follow the rape — swabs, photographs, and badly cast detectives making broad insinuations — and then widens out to the weeks that follow. Regardless of where we are on the timeline, Thompson takes familiar beats and stares at them until they yield insights that have seldom been seen on screen. One scene finds Bonnie minimizing her trauma by telling a co-worker that she only got mugged. But rather than cut away, Thompson lingers as Bonnie has to repeat that falsehood over and over for all of the well-meaning people in her office, forcing us to sit with the sheer exhaustion of victimhood.
Later, Matt argues that Bonnie’s decision not to tell anyone else the truth puts the burden on his shoulders alone. Stahl-David’s empathetic performance is dwarfed by the complexity of Beatriz’s character, but his overprotective helplessness rings loud and clear; Matt’s efforts to support his girlfriend only serve to remind her of how much she’s suffering. “I want the old Matt back,” Bonnie complains to her friend, but that’s not going to happen. Their first attempt at having sex after the attack is a perfect storm of shared (and separate) frustrations, the clumsy moment when Matt has to put on a condom effectively crystallizing the strange presence that Bonnie’s trauma exerts on every arena of their lives, apart and together.
Beatriz does a remarkable job of sustaining a character who’s trying to shrug off a trauma that lives under her skin, someone who’s painfully susceptible to her own strength. She doesn’t play this like she’s in a movie about rape, but rather like she’s in a movie about a person forced to reconcile her trauma with her sense of self. Understated to a point and unnervingly believable at all times, Beatriz makes it feel as though Bonnie is always searching for answers to a rhetorical question, as desperate to find something as she was during the assault itself. In fact, Beatriz’s performance is so natural that the film’s tin-eared scenes — almost all of which hinge on supporting characters who should have been cast with non-professional actors — are more pronouncedly fake as a result.
It goes without saying that survivors should decide for themselves when they’re ready for it, but “The Light of the Moon” is a movie for victims and the people who love them, a movie that addresses something awful — something that’s either unimaginable, or all too real — and does so head-on. It’s as nuanced and mottled as scar tissue, full of scenes that feel adapted from personal experience (a testament to Thompson’s skills, and hopefully nothing more). The film recognizes the difference between getting better and simply getting by, and that some wounds are too deep to be dealt with in 90 minutes; while not hopeless, it’s a vital corrective to all those stories that make survivors feel like there’s something wrong with them if they’re not on course for catharsis in three acts or less. Thompson never pushes things too far, “The Light of the Moon” never showing us more than Bonnie can see in the darkness. This is a micro-budget movie, cobbled together from the corners that it’s cut and riddled with rookie mistakes, but none of that will likely matter to the people who need it most.
“The Light of the Moon” opens at the IFC Center on Wednesday, November 1, and the Laemmle Monica Film Center on Thursday, November 16 from Imagination Worldwide and The Film Collaborative.