I’ve seen many films recently that fit into a strange category of bizarre and quirky films. Movies that, at first glance, don’t strike the tone of being horror films, then suddenly start building tension through weird and inexplicable scenarios. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Good Boy as part of Beyond Fest and compared pieces of that to the strangeness of Quentin Dupieux, whose Incredible But True was another recent review title. Adding To the Moon to that list now makes for a trifecta of recent off-center films spanning multiple genres, including horror, comedy, and drama. To the Moon is a psychedelic nightmare into addiction and recovery, made comedic by character eccentricities into holistic and spiritual healing approaches.
Dennis (Scott Friend) and Mia (Madeleine Morgenweck) escape to the woods after the tumultuous scenarios of miscarriage compounded with Dennis’ substance abuse issues have left the couple’s relationship hanging on by the thinnest of threads. With the goals of reconnecting and getting Dennis clean, the two expect the solitude of Dennis’ grandmother’s cabin may be able to provide a miracle for them until they wake to find Dennis’ brother Roger (The OA’s Will Brill) doing Yoga-like exercises beside their dog on their first morning.
Roger is an enigmatic and charismatic character to the audience, as well as to Mia. Somewhat unfindable for the last decade, causing him to miss his brother’s nuptials, Mia sees a way to understand better where her beau is coming from through that of his odd, older brother, who appears to be nothing like the monster Dennis painted him to be. Roger is a little intense when it comes to the naturalistic regiment that he abides by, yet what appears more questionable to the audience is his attire. A yellow jumpsuit befitting an industrial worker, or Jonah Heston of Mystery Science Theater, is never explained. You even start to wonder for a short time if somehow that’s going to bridge the story and title together. However, despite his energy, Roger appears down to Earth and more in tune with the spiritual frequencies of his surroundings and new cabin mates. Dennis begins to scour up some animosity as sibling rivalries from the past are drummed up, but there’s more to To The Moon than just brotherly quarrels.
As To The Moon began to unfold, I felt as though I was hit with what would typically be a comedic premise. The unwanted houseguest was a trope typical of ’90s family comedies, and in the instance of To The Moon, I specifically felt as if I was watching an alternate version of What About Bob? As Roger continues to disrupt Dennis and Mia’s weekend, I couldn’t help but think of Richard Dreyfuss’ and Bill Murray’s characters in a similar vacation setting. One scene in particular resonated with comparable subjective ire as Mia asks Dennis to apologize to Roger after blowing up at him over dinner. To The Moon’s apology definitely drifts into more awkward territory, but it does lead to a cringeworthy chuckle of uncomfortable hilarity. Ultimately, Dennis begins putting the pieces together on how Roger is manipulating him and Mia. When he tries to articulate his findings, he’s met with resistance from Mia, who suspects Dennis has relapsed.
Paranoia, hallucinations, and the further unraveling of a couple desperately trying to get back on track make To The Moon a mesmerizing film, but its slow-burn methods feel stretched over the eighty-two-minute runtime. Director Scott Friend has some solid ideas at work in his script, the estranged brother, the fragile marriage, the hallucinatory journey of kicking dope, and a potentially nefarious plot brewing. Yet, somehow, the film lacks atmosphere in places, especially when attempting to carry us from one red flag to another, and creates drama in the third act by making a character submit to a spiteful act that only felt necessary as a way to elongate the film by a few minutes. As Friend attempts these combative shifts between anger and forgiveness, love and hate, and fear and fun, it feels like a rocking boat seeking balance until the finale finds us amid a storm of mayhem which is more surprisingly on par with Fatal Attraction than anything else I’ve mentioned so far.
In a lot of ways, To The Moon eclipses itself. At times it’s very smart, funny, and has a hell of a finale, but getting there is a bit of a trudge. I would have loved for the film to have been more focused on what its endgame was and perhaps have more fun with these characters who are put in a wonderfully precarious situation. As a hallucinatory film about drug recovery, To The Moon can explore fantasy elements for Dennis. Scenes in the movie that seem broken and disjointed add mystery and anxiety to the character, but there isn’t enough of it, as the film pulls back for the sake of Mia’s POV, who honestly doesn’t get as much of an internal arc because the relationship between the two brothers undercuts her character. While the film ultimately works, and Mia achieves badass status, the journey feels obscured. I can’t help but feel the journey should be the most essential aspect of To The Moon, which also feels like a platitude befitting Roger’s spiritual guidance.
As far as Scott Friend’s first feature is concerned, it shows a lot of talent and great aptitude. Photography and cinematography get high marks in To The Moon. There’s an undertoned brightness through a bleak, overly gray lens, allowing you to feel that same waxing and waning toward balance I was describing before. It’s almost as if we’re constantly experiencing these beautiful nature settings through the numbness of depressants, but with the hope we’ll see things brighter again soon. Plus, the actors share fantastic chemistry, Brill being the highlight here, perhaps because he gets to be the most unconventional.
While I also have my nitpicks about the film’s script, sometimes, especially in indie horror, you have to worry about a million little things. As far as the story goes, as I’ve already said, it’s solid with a lot of brains. I’m honestly looking forward to whatever Friend is looking to do next.
To The Moon is currently available on VOD.