To the Moon looks and feels like the most indie movie ever; from Jason Martin Castillo’s mysterious score to the lush cinematography by Dan Debrey, which captures the surroundings in a way that makes them seem both inviting and forbidding in equal measure. And yet, Scott Friend’s ambitious debut–which he wrote, directed, and stars in as struggling lead Dennis–is much more than meets the eye. Deceptively clever and strangely alluring, To the Moon is difficult to work out, which was probably Friend’s intention, but every detail is considered, every moment charged with meaning.
Dennis and partner Mia (a subdued Madeleine Morgenweck) are taking a weekend off from their busy lives in the mysterious city to regroup after Dennis suffered yet another relapse in his sobriety. The fledgling actor has also lost another job, though he hasn’t told Mia yet, while the relatively young couple also recently suffered a miscarriage and are hesitant to start trying for another baby. There’s plenty going on, even just within their own relationship, but the situation is complicated significantly when Dennis’ eccentric brother, Roger (The OA’s Will Brill) shows up out of nowhere.
Roger has been missing for years, and he and Dennis clearly have issues stretching back to a complicated childhood. The house in which Dennis and Mia are staying belongs to their family, and while leafing through a book, Mia discovers dark messages, presumably scrawled by Roger, that hint at the level of resentment bubbling just under the surface. The more Roger charms Mia, the less Dennis trusts him, but Friend never makes it quite clear what’s really going on. Is Dennis suffering paranoid delusions brought on by his withdrawal symptoms, or is something more sinister going on?
To the Moon is paced well, considering how short it is, and how much Friend crams in. Whether he was economical with the run-time because of a lack of funds, or he simply felt it fit the narrative better, Friend’s directorial debut doesn’t overstay its welcome. The dialogue is a little stagey at times, but the Real Housewives-style “I’m sorry IF” apologies are a neat touch and Dennis’ addiction issues are sensitively handled, rather than feeling like a plot point. Likewise, more horror protagonists should sage their cabins in the woods.
The fact Dennis is a struggling actor adds another layer of authenticity to the proceedings, particularly considering Friend has a number of credits to his own name, too. Mia siding with Roger makes a certain amount of sense in context, but her motivations aren’t always clear, with Morgenweck playing her as someone content to be carried along by the current rather than staking a claim for herself. As the interloper, Drill is a hoot, even if his performance recalls Jason Mantzoukas in practically every respect (Mantzoukas was probably too expensive, to be fair).
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To the Moon is essentially a three-hander, and each performer rises to the occasion accordingly. Friend himself looks like a strange mixture of both Safdie brothers, but Dennis isn’t the hero, much to the writer-director’s credit. There probably should’ve been a tripod handy at certain times, since much of the footage is shaky for no real reason, but for the most part, it looks and sounds great while a mini Hellraiser puzzle box, which turns out to be a fertility crystal, adds an extra weird touch that stops the movie feeling staid or stuffy.
For a self-contained story, To the Moon is impressively expansive. The title sequence has an old Hollywood feel, reminiscent of something Mickey Keating might do, and indeed fellow indie auteur Jim Cummings is thanked in the credits (unless it’s a family friend with the same name). Friend is right to envision himself in their ranks. His debut is smart, surprising, and inventive with the first-time filmmaker showing a real flair for creating suspense out of otherwise mundane situations. The only real issue with To the Moon, in fact, is that it doesn’t feature the RuPaul song of the same name – a missed opportunity that would’ve ended this one on a truly terrifying note.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Scott Friend
Writer(s): Scott Friend
Stars: Will Brill, Madeleine Morgenweck, Scott Friend
Release date: September 20, 2022 (VOD)
Run Time: 82 minutes