Lydia (Isabel May, 1883) is the very heart and soul of Leah Bleich's debut feature film The Moon & Back, a low-budget indie having its world premiere this week at Indy's Heartland International Film Festival. Heartland is the ideal locale for this humorous and charming film that takes a strong ensemble cast and tells the kind of story that Heartland audiences absolutely love.
Lydia is a high school senior struggling to make sense of anything a year after the death of her writer father (Oscar winner Nat Faxon, The Descendants) due to cancer. She and her mother (Missi Pyle, Captain Fantastic) are increasingly estranged and living in a home they can no longer afford.
In a cinematic world where the term "independent film" these days often still means a $1 million plus motion picture, The Moon & Back is an independent film that is truly independent having been shot over the course of nine days on a reported budget of around $50,000. The end result, however, is an absolutely terrific debut from Bleich that lives into her belief in the magic of storytelling and the power of film to create positive change.
Indeed, The Moon & Back is most definitely a Heartland Film Fest kind of film.
Bleich's story for The Moon & Back was one of five winners of Justin Baldoni's Six Feet Apart Experiment Filmmaking Competition and it's nearly impossible to imagine that Baldoni isn't absolutely thrilled with the resulting film that takes a warm, humorous story and adds an ensemble that includes multiple familiar character actors bringing to life a story about grief, hope, friendship, and much more.
I'm a longtime fan of Missi Pyle and she's ideally cast as Diane, a slightly edgy now single mom whose compassion is never that far away. Pyle is one of those rare actresses who's as comfortable with edgy fare as she is with family friendly cinema and both sides come to life here as she struggles to hold her household together while supporting a daughter whose grief is decidedly complicated.
Having strained nearly all of her relationships, Lydia is on the downward spiral until she stumbles across a hidden computer folder containing her father's old writings including a planned but never realized $200 million sci-fi opera of sorts called Space Chronicles: An Epic Saga of Life, Love and Loss in a Distant Galaxy. The title alone likely explains why this secret script remained a secret for so many years.
Equipped with just a VHS camera and severely lacking the $200 million, Lydia decides to bring her father's script to life using the excuse that it'll put her college plans, film school of course, back on track. After an uncomfortable reunion with estranged friend Simon (Miles Gutierrez-Riley) and a bake sale to raise a budget, Lydia sets out to honor her father's legacy, deal with her own grief, heal her strained relationships, and maybe spend a little less time in the office of her guidance counselor, Mr. Martin (P.J. Byrne).
It's arguable that The Moon & Back stretches too many narrative threads into its rather slight 74-minute running time, however, it's hard to begrudge the film its ambitious nature when its heart is so warm and its human spirit so wonderfully alive. While Bleich is an award-winning filmmaker with multiple shorts to her name, this initial journey into feature filmmaking is a wonderful tapestry of cathartic humor and the many ways, some healthy and some not so much, we deal with our grief and the world around us. Watching Lydia learn how to deal with her own life while becoming increasingly aware of the struggles of those around her is a quiet and simple joy.
Isabel May is a spark of cinematic light as Lydia and May keeps us rooting for her even when she's being more than a little obnoxious. Both Pyle and Faxon are an absolute and P.J. Byrne takes what could have easily been a one-note role and makes him feel so heartfelt and honest that you wouldn't mind watching a movie about him.
Lensing by Freddie Whitman is strong throughout and the original score by Wesley Hughes complements Bleich's storytelling quite nicely.
As the closing credits were rolling, I found myself honestly a little surprised at just how much I enjoyed The Moon & Back. I enjoyed spending time with these characters and despite wishing it was just a tad longer I found myself feeling satisfied with how Bleich wraps things up in a way that feels emotionally honest and true to the story.
With several additional film fests already lined up, The Moon & Back should have no problem finding its place on the indie fest circuit and turns out to be one of the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival's pleasant surprises.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic