2013 // USA // Tomer Almagor // November 22, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theatre)
[Full Disclosure: 9 Full Moons was one of five debut feature films in the juried New Filmmaker’s Forum competition at the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival. I served on the NFF jury, and spoke with director Tomer Almagor briefly at the SLIFF Closing Night Party. This review is intentionally biased to provide an affirmative, constructive evaluation of the film.]
Perhaps more than any other American city, Los Angeles has a distinctive mood. It’s a schizophrenic mingling of glamour and sleaze, promise and disillusionment, warmth and alienation. Numerous films have succeeded in capturing that aura, although in most cases the City of Angels also plays an essential role in the narrative (see: Sunset Blvd., Chinatown, Boyz n the Hood, L.A. Confidential, Mulholland Drive). A rarer subspecies of the L.A. film is one in which any city could have sufficed as a setting, but the distinctive Angelino vibe is so potently expressed, one can't imagine the film unfolding anywhere else (see: Double Indemnity, Short Cuts, Heat, Punch-Drunk Love, Drive).
Into this latter category one can place writer-director Tomer Almagor's debut feature, 9 Full Moons, a romantic tragedy that gets the peculiar L.A. mood exactly right. The film admittedly leans towards the desolate. 9 Full Moons is a story of simple dreams that are variously stalled, derailed, and crushed, usually as a result of plain old human fallibility. Although Almagor slides in the odd scene of sun-drenched contentment, the look of the film's nocturnal sequences leaves the strongest impression. It is a nightscape of desperation and discontent. There are dive bars dense with smoke and neon gloom, cold suppers waiting in shadowed kitchens, and midnight streets awash in sickly, sodium-yellow light.
It is a fitting setting for what is, at bottom, a straightforward tale of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl. The fellow in question is the guileless, square-jawed Lev (Brett Roberts), an aspiring audio engineer who makes ends meet as a car service driver. One night he crosses paths with alluring wild girl Frankie (Amy Seimetz), and they eventually tumble into bed, where they exhibit an urgency and vulnerability that seems novel for both of them. What follows is an intense but erratic romance characterized by alternating periods of domestic bliss and explosive resentment. The conflicts that arise are mostly prosaic clashes of personality: Frankie is restless and hostile, while Lev is negligent and befuddled. However, Almagor—and Seimetz in particular—lend the story an anguished vividness that overcomes the banality inherent to relationship drama.
Who ultimately bears responsibility for Lev and Frankie's charred ruin of a relationship is a contentious question, but 9 Full Moons is not especially concerned with moralizing or laying blame. The tone of the film is one of sorrowful observation. Frankie is a profoundly wounded person: an abused self-harmer who yearns for the stability of a loving partner, but whose self-loathing compels her to drink and carouse with the creeps at the corner watering hole. Lev's fumbling attempts at emotional intimacy are sweet but often tone-deaf, and he becomes distant as professional opportunities begin demanding more of his time. Yet his most significant failing as a partner is his latently sexist assumption that all Frankie needs is a good man to save her, coupled with his narcissistic belief that he is the man to do it. Watching as happiness slips through these characters' fingers carries an ache that resonates with the film’s evocative depiction of L.A.
Where 9 Full Moons tends to stumble is in its performances and screenplay. Roberts, bless his wavy romance novel locks, just isn’t acting at the same level as Seimetz, and this gap muffles the romantic chemistry and searing catharsis that the story demands. Roberts is adept at registering a kind of expectant uneasiness, which is fitting for Lev, but it doesn’t exactly make for electric leading man material. Almagor’s script, meanwhile, devotes an unnecessary amount of time to a subplot about washed-up country music star Charlie King Nash (Donal Logue), who draws Lev into his orbit. Logue’s presence is always a pleasure, and this narrative tangent does indeed have ripple effects on Lev and Frankie’s life together, but too often it feels like a distraction. The slender thematic echoes and counterpoints provided by Lev’s whirlwind relationship with Nash aren’t worth diverting attention away from the film’s primary plot. When 9 Full Moons is focused on the forlorn two-person saga of Lev and Frankie, it’s at its most affecting and intriguing.