★★★★ THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, AMAZON PRIME REVIEW Jessica M Thompson's debut feature is a skilful study of the aftermath of rape
This account of the aftermath of a sexual assault is handled with a clear-headed restraint and attention to detail that’s refreshing in the feverish post-Weinstein climate. The Light of the Moon (released on Amazon Prime) is the first feature by writer-director Jessica M Thompson, who has leveraged maximum value from her cast and a shoestring budget to create a low-key but potent sign-of-the-times bulletin.
If the subject matter fills you with apprehension about preachiness or propaganda, Thompson is already ahead of you. The film’s central issue is what it is, but while telling the story of Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz, from TV police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine), a promising young architect at a way-cool practice in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district, Thompson manages to slip in some droll asides about millennial lifestyles and urban living. There’s light relief from Bonnie’s gay best friend Jack (Conrad Ricamora, pictured below right), simpatico and stylish but also so emotionally precarious that he has to console himself by bingeing on Tina Turner, while the surrounding ambience of clubbing, drinking, recreational drugs, loft living and organic delis is allowed to seep subtly into the film’s fabric. Thompson grew up in Sydney, so perhaps sees New York with a wry outsider’s eye.
The attack on Bonnie is short, brutal and totally unexpected. She’s been out drinking and partying with her workmates, and is walking home with music playing in her headphones when she’s grabbed from behind by a hoodie-wearing figure, dragged into a derelict building, slammed against the wall and penetrated from behind. We don’t see much detail – mostly just Bonnie’s face registering shock, disbelief and anguish – but that pretty much sums up all the victim knew about it too.
The ripples from this brief event are far-reaching and long-lasting. At first the emphasis is on immediate practicalities, as Bonnie keeps it together successfully enough to bag up her underwear for evidence, and then reluctantly endures a police interview, where the cops just about refrain from passing judgment on her alcohol intake and “a little bump of cocaine”. As one officer explains, none too flatteringly, “these guys prey on drunk girls. That’s their MO, it makes it easy for ‘em.” Then there’s a medical examination, HIV prophylaxis and shots for tetanus and hepatitis B. Catching the perp looks unlikely.
Bonnie’s boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David) is as horrified and caring as a guy could be, but his solicitousness and sudden enthusiasm for domestic chores merely make Bonnie irritated (Thompson is very sharp on those situations when anything one partner says is interpreted as a deliberate insult by the other). Bonnie, livid that this has happened to her, is determined to get back to work and her ongoing design project as quickly as possible. She tells her friends she was mugged, and leaves out the rape part. She doesn’t tell her Hispanic and very Catholic mother anything, fearing a moral backlash.
However, as time passes, the perspective of the story begins to stretch out. Bonnie’s feisty self-reliance – “I don’t want to be a part of this sisterhood of rape victims,” she snaps at one point – is gradually eroded by anger and insecurity, and the more supportive her friends become, the more she feels alienated from them. She visits a support group, but it’s run by a hippie earth-mother type called Ariel and Bonnie can’t abide it. Matt feels guilty because he wasn’t with her when she was attacked, and she finds herself blaming him while also hating herself.
Bonnie’s experience is, as the cliché goes, a journey, but powerful playing, especially from the outstanding Beatriz, keep us involved every step of the way. Scenes between Bonnie and Matt as they try to re-establish their old intimacy are almost painful to watch, and the sense of lives falling apart because of a random inexplicable event is delivered with telling force. Thompson refrains from throwing messages in our faces, though she does build in some practical advice for the single woman walking home alone after dark. The Light of the Moon won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at last year’s SXSW festival, and Thompson’s future looks bright.
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- The Light of the Moon is on Amazon Prime from 28 February as part of the Film Festival Stars programme