Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz) is a successful New York architect who lives with her boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David) in an upscale Bushwick apartment. One night she is sexually assaulted just three blocks from her home. Over the following four weeks she tries to come to terms with what has happened and to make some start on an emotional recovery.
The Light of the Moon is dark, miserable stuff. How could it be anything else? It is always a challenging and risky task for a filmmaker to tackle something as upsetting and awful as sexual assault. It is challenging because there is going to be an uphill battle attempting to get audiences into the cinema. It is risky because there is an enormous responsibility on the filmmaker to represent such matters responsibly and sensitively. In the latter regard writer/director Jessica M. Thompson has nothing to worry about. Her film is measured and intelligent. Most importantly it knows what matters in the story and what does not. It is, critically and thankfully, a film utterly devoid of a male gaze. Thompson’s success in expressing the story is also the solution to that challenging part: while a film about sexual assault does not sound entertaining, the quality of the script and direction makes it a powerful and deeply effective work. It is an independent film with a relatively limited budget, but technically it works well. It is very nicely photographed by Autumn Eakin.
The film tells a mostly familiar story, and that brings the potential to slip into stereotypes. By focusing on a well-developed and three-dimensional protagonist, Thompson uses realism and raw emotion to make such elements seem fresh and interesting. It is a wonderful surprise to see Stephanie Beatriz, primarily known for playing a deadpan and moody police officer in the TV comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in such a different role. She is superb, mixing resolve, rage, guilt, fear and frailty. She is always convincing. She never wavers from her character. She is absolutely the film’s greatest asset, and I really hope that she gets more chances to demonstrate her talent and range in the future.
Michael Stahl-David is also excellent as boyfriend Matt. He is clearly distraught by Bonnie’s assault. He visibly wants to protect and heal her, but he is also terrible at it. Scenes of him attempting comfort, or trying to help, or – worst of all – working around Bonnie to secretly get her friends to watch out of her, are often painful to watch. You want him to stop and take a step back, but at the same time his behaviour is entirely believable. Thompson wisely involves his trauma in the story without ever allowing it to overshadow Bonnie’s.
Scenes involving the police investigation into finding Bonnie’s rapist are depressing but effective. The film mostly avoids giving easy answers. It does not tie everything up neatly in the end. Some things in the story do not feel fair; it is absolutely the right choice with this story that they do not. Thompson has chosen a difficult subject matter here, but she has respected it and deliberately chosen to accurately represent it. That makes The Light of the Moon a rewarding and powerful film.