At first, filmmaker Jessica M. Thompson’s feature debut The Light of the Moon plays out like a familiar vigilante or rape-revenge story: Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz of Fox sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has her seemingly perfect life (handsome boyfriend, successful job as an architect, nice apartment in a hip area of Brooklyn) shattered when she’s brutally raped by a stranger while walking home from a bar late at night. She reports the attack to the police, who go through the motions of pursuing her case, but are not particularly dedicated to helping her. She attempts to go back to her everyday life, but she can’t get past the traumatic event.
Another kind of movie would have Bonnie get herself a gun and track down the man who attacked her. But Thompson, an Australian native currently based in New York City, wasn’t interested in telling a typical story about the aftermath of rape. After years of seeing sexual assault depicted in movies and TV series that were overwhelmingly created by men, she wanted to bring in a new perspective. “I was quietly disturbed at the way rape was being portrayed in feature films and television series and in the media in general,” she says. “I was always very aware of the decisions that the director was making, or the cinematographer. That they were panning the camera down to a certain position, or just showing it sexualized.”
Moon takes a very different approach, starting with the scene depicting Bonnie’s attack. It happens less than 10 minutes into the film, and it’s focused on Bonnie’s horrified helplessness rather than the way the attacker is getting his gratification. For Thompson, it was important to create a safe environment for her star when shooting that scene. “I made sure the man playing the rapist was a very good friend of mine, and that I trusted him deeply, so that Stephanie, by way of trusting me, trusted him,” she explains.
She hired a fight coordinator to map out the scene, and gave both actors different safe words that they could use if they needed a break. “Everything was coordinated like a dance,” she says. “Of course we knew these were going to be hard scenes to shoot, and we just created this energy that Stephanie felt completely empowered.”
As Bonnie recovers from her attack, her relationship with Matt (Michael Stahl-David), her live-in boyfriend, begins to suffer. “I know this is weird and uncomfortable and I don’t know what to say, but just try to be yourself, okay?” she tells him the morning after the attack, but he can’t help treating her differently, overcompensating by cooking her meals and coming home early from work so she isn’t alone in their apartment.
Eventually, she gets fed up with being treated like a fragile doll, and she and Matt have a frustrating, uncomfortable argument following his disastrous attempt at making dinner. “Isn’t this what I’m supposed to do, take care of you?” he asks. “You never wanted to do that for me before,” she fires back.
“It’s that discomfort and that awkwardness that I’m interested in,” Thompson says. “I love those conversations.” The movie features two sex scenes between Bonnie and Matt as they work to rebuild their connection, another important theme that Thompson wanted to explore. “What does intimacy look like after rape?” she wonders. “Because you’re still a sexual being. Just because you go through sexual trauma doesn’t mean that you shut down.”
And while the movie is empathetic to Bonnie’s struggle, Thompson also wasn’t interested in creating a one-dimensional avatar for rape victims. Before her attack, Bonnie drinks, snorts cocaine and flirts with men at a bar. “Even as the most liberal feminist that I am, sometimes I’m reading stories, and if I see that the woman was drunk, she was flirting, she was maybe walking home late—there is a part of you, deep down, that says, ‘Did she ask for it a little bit?’” Thompson says. “And that’s exactly what I wanted the audience to challenge themselves with.”
Questions like that have been at the forefront of the national consciousness recently, and even though Thompson started working on Moon long before the #MeToo movement took off, she sees the movie as an essential part of that conversation. “I think the film stands alone on its own two feet without that as well, but now’s the time,” she says.
And the feedback that she’s been getting at screenings at film festivals and college campuses since the movie’s premiere at South by Southwest in 2017 (where it won the audience award for narrative features) has reinforced that feeling. “I know that there’s going to be a lot of emotion and there’s going to be a lot of people who want to speak to me afterwards,” she says. That includes both women and men. “The biggest surprise is the amount of men who are so moved by this film,” she adds.
As grateful as Thompson is for the response the film has gotten, she’s planning on exploring new territory. “I’ve been approached by many people since making this film to make another film about rape, and I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, I’m done,’” she says.
She’s working on a sci-fi TV series and a feature-film adaptation of a sci-fi novel, but she hopes that future depictions of sexual assault in popular culture will follow Moon’s lead. “I do think that the narrative should be put into women’s hands,” she says. Moon is an important first step in that direction.
The Light of the Moon is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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