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‘Don’t Come Back From the Moon’: Beauty in a town where kids flower, dads flee

Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg, right) scavenges with his friends in “Don’t Come Back From the Moon.”

Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg, right) scavenges with his friends in “Don’t Come Back From the Moon.” | Brainstorm Media

From its opening moments through its pitch-perfect closing notes, “Don’t Come Back from the Moon” is a stunning and stark and beautiful thing to behold.

The melancholy long shots, often framed against the backdrop of Southern California’s oddly unique Salton Sea, are reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film.

The spare, precise narration from the young protagonist cuts straight to the point and often straight to the bone. The performances are understated and natural.

The direction and the screenplay from Bruce Thierry Cheung (adapting a novel by Dean Bakopoulos) — both first-rate, from the precise nature of the dialogue to the confidently quiet pacing to the almost docudrama-style movements of the camera.

This is one of those “small” movies that deserve a big audience.

“Don’t Come Back from the Moon” is set in the impoverished, broken-down, former waterfront resort community of Bombay Beach, on the Salton Sea.

It’s summertime, somewhere around the year 1970. (The exact time period is never specified, but given the landline phones and the antenna TV sets and the talk of lunar explorations, we know the era.)

Events are told from the viewpoint of 16-year-old Mickey (Jeffrey Wahlberg), whose father (James Franco) is only the latest in a long line of fathers and husbands to just up and leave their families, never to be heard from again.

Mickey’s Uncle John gets into a fight at the local factory — and gets into his truck and speeds away. A bar owner grabs the cash from the register, leaves a cryptic note on the mirror, and disappears. Mickey’s neighbor’s dad leaves in the middle of the night; his car is found in a ditch, but there’s no blood, no damage to the car, no indication of where the man has gone.

“After that, any time someone left, we’d just say he’d gone to the moon,” says Mickey.

It sounds like something out of an episode of the “Twilight Zone” — but the explanation is sadly anything but supernatural. These men have left because they have no jobs, no prospects, no hope for the future. They abandon their families and run away from reality.

Mickey spends the summer killing time with his friends — drinking, horsing around, tearing up abandoned houses for scrap metal they can trade for goods such as used bicycles. He’s fiercely protective of his little brother Kolya (Zackary Arthur), and supportive of his overwhelmed mother (Rashida Jones), who crawls into a bottle for a while before snapping to and building a little home business providing haircuts for the locals.

We root hard for this family, just as we root hard for all the kids and teenagers in the town who are forced to grow up overnight because the so-called men have disappeared.

“Don’t Come Back From the Moon” is filled with poignant vignettes that play like connected short stories in an anthology. Mickey runs into his Uncle John (Jeremiah Noe) at a bar, and his uncle fights back tears as he tries to explain his actions. Mickey’s new girlfriend Sonya (Alyssa Elle Steinacker), who’s been living on her own, reacts with startling ferocity when her father shows up in the kitchen one morning. Mickey’s mother becomes the focus of a fumbling, sincere courtship from a young man (Henry Hopper) who comes in for a haircut.

Small things transpire. Life-changing events happen. All of it framed in that one summer, where most days are about 90 percent despair and 10 percent hope and joy — but when you’re 16, that 10 percent just might be enough to see you through to 17.

‘Don’t Come Back From the Moon’

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Brainstorm Media presents a film directed by Bruce Thierry Cheung and written by Cheung and Dean Bakopoulos, based on Bakopoulos’ novel “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 82 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC South Barrington and on demand.