To the Moon (Review): Low Budget Indie Fails to Launch
To the Moon is a competently made, if frustrating low-budget trip whose best ideas are never fully developed.
I have a lot of love for low-budget indies with limited locations and a cast list you can’t count on one hand. The scaled-down production can help the director execute their vision more clearly, and often the lack of resources leads to improvisation that creates a final product better than anyone involved could have imagined. This is the aspect most often cited by writers, directors, and other professionals as the best reasons to work on an indie scale. Though the downside is that elements that may be lacking are harder to cover up with other areas. Such is the case with To the Moon, an indie with grand ambitions that struggles and ultimately collapses under the weight of its weak screenplay and lack of chemistry.
Now, credit where credit is due: writer, director, and lead actor Scott Friend has not conceived a story that exceeds his means. The setup, which follows couple Dennis (Friend) and Mia (Madeleine Morgenweck) as they travel to a secluded house to recuperate in the wake of a tragedy, is not a technically complex one. Even when Dennis’s brother Roger (Will Brill) unexpectedly shows up and begins subtly wreaking havoc on the couple, the filmmaking never shows signs of wear. It’s three people, in one place, having a lot of conversations and possibly going insane. You know, the normal type of family reunion. And additional praise should be brought to the team who designed the poster, which easily stands as one of the most evocative pieces of film advertising in recent memory. The deep red, little red riding hood-esque cloak with hands clawing their way out is immediately striking and a great piece of graphic design.
Unfortunately To the Moon’s negatives outweigh the positives. The lack of chemistry between Friend and Morgenweck is palpable and confusing. Is this couple still in love? Are they on the rocks? You’ll just have to guess, because their scenes in the early minutes before Roger is introduced play out like two people thrown together at a dinner party, neither of whom wanted to be there in the first place. This is made even more confusing when Roger enters the narrative. Brill is easily the standout of the trio, the energy that he brings to the role, somewhere between a demented wellness guru and a naïve priest, is captivating to witness and so absurd that it borders on comedy. His chemistry with the leads individually is palpable, the way he slowly seduces Mia and dominates Dennis’s will is fascinating, and even the scenes with all three together (often around a dinner table or out in the wilderness) work well enough, which only makes the whiplash between those scenes and the tired exchanged between Dennis and Mia all the more confounding.
Performances are not the only issue with To the Moon, though it is the most glaring. There’s also the problem of Mia, the only woman in the film whose screentime consists of her mourning the loss of her miscarried child and being seduced by Roger. There was potential in the setup for her character, but as the film creeps towards its conclusion she remains stubbornly unchanged, and Dennis’s anger towards Roger towards his treatment of Mia gives off the impression that she’s no more than a pawn for the men to fight for, an overdone and not particularly engaging trope in the year 2022. Add the weak writing in with Friend’s performance, which mostly involves his shouting questions in the third act and generally coming across like he isn’t sure who to be mad at, and the ending of the film is just as unsatisfying everything that led up to it.
There is probably an audience for To the Moon, those who will support independent cinema at all costs and also enjoy their viewing experiences under the influence of illicit substances. But, for the vast majority of people, the film will inevitably come off as a well-intentioned but not particularly good character study, who’s most intriguing ideas are left by the wayside in exchange for more conventional, and as a result, more boring themes and ideas that will probably leave your head by the time you exit the theater.
To the Moon will be available on VOD from September 20, 2022.