Director: Daniel Patrick Holland
Writer: Daniel Patrick Holland
Cast: Sydney Carvill, Eddie Navarro, Nicholas Thurkettle, B. A. Tobin, Nicholas Heard
Running time: 1hr 49mins
In his later days on Match of the Day, legendary commentator John Motson was subjected to a four-match run of 0-0 draws – more than 360 minutes of joyless drudgery. It wasn’t so much that football had ceased to be entertaining; plenty of goals were going in elsewhere, just seemingly never in Motson’s presence. It was as if some mathematically-impossible hex had been placed on his infamous sheepskin coat, draining the colour from whatever ground it was at.
The relief was palpable in Motson’s voice, when he was finally present for an actual goal – and now, I can honestly say I know how he must have felt. It has been more than two years since I last gave a feature narrative an unreservedly positive review on Indy Film Library. While that time has seen plenty of top-quality entries for other critics on this site to mull over, even the relatively positive reviews I have handed out have been qualified with a big but. I was beginning to wonder whether I was the problem?
However superstitious I might get about that run of mediocrity, though, Moon Students is the film that emphatically blasted that monkey off my back – and I am eternally grateful. Daniel Patrick Howard’s movie is impeccably shot, sharply paced, and expertly performed by an ensemble cast which could give anyone in Hollywood a run for their money.
The perfect antidote to campus-stinker Decision to Ask Why, Moon Students is an innovative, sensitive portrayal of the lives of two students and their professor in one of the most tumultuous semesters on record. The film also dares to address the great elephant in the room of modern cinema – broaching the impact the Covid-19 pandemic years have had on society, from the many beautiful lives snuffed out by the sickness, to the social and economic schisms the lockdown months highlighted. That alone demonstrates the tremendous power independent film has in this moment – it can talk about topics which mainstream cinema will not touch with a 10-foot pole, no matter how relevant they might be to our lives, or how important reckoning with them might be to our futures.
As the lockdown throws our cast into chaos, with class turned on its head in the middle of an already difficult time, the story develops each of its characters as a fully-rounded human being, complete with their own motivations, loves and losses – helping us in turn address some of the upheaval we have gone through, by relating to their on-screen experiences. They are each struggling with emotional baggage that can blindside them in important moments, or lead them to conflict – but nobody is the villain here; rather, everyone has room for learning and emotional growth, as well as the potential to improve the world around them.
Our main protagonist, Lita (Sydney Carvill), is a caring individual, but tends to shrink from conflict. Through the struggles she encounters in the story, she learns that truly caring about anything means that unavoidably you will have to face down conflict in its defence. Her on-and-off boyfriend Antonio (Eddie Navarro) is strong, devoted, and determined to protect himself and those he loves when they are threatened physically, but he is constantly struggling to bury his emotions in a way childhood trauma taught him was ‘necessary’ to survive. As his chosen family go through losses of their own, he is forced to reconcile with his emotions, to avoid spiralling into self-destruction.
Finally, the couple’s charismatic teacher Ethan (Nicholas Thurkettle) is well-read and determined to get the best from his students to set them up for life – but his own inability to cope with loss, paired with a self-centred ideological belief that people like him are the centre of the universe, means that he is woefully unaware of what kind of support his Latinx pupils really need. Through interacting with them, he is finally able to realise the hollowness of the fantasy-incarnation of America he so readily belittled his students to defend – and how it, and he, must change.
Each of them puts in a fantastic performance – occasionally helping carry some dialogue which might have come across as a little corny in other hands. The hyper-verbosity of Ethan, and his constant intellectual flexing – including centring his understanding of the world around the myth of Icarus – would be utterly insufferable were it not for the quality of Thurkettle’s ability to still find humanity in his character. His forlorn facial tics point to an evident lack of self-assurance even while waxing lyrical about how much he knows, while the bubbling fury behind his eyes at the slightest sign of students struggling to relate to his material speaks of a man caught in the headlights of his own approaching irrelevance. Every reminder that, yes, he went to university, becomes not just the signifier of a tactless know-it-all, but someone desperate to show himself he still has something important or clever to say.
B. A. Tobin and Nicholas Heard also deserve credit here – as a pair of brothers who are struggling to fit in within their community. Tobin, as D’Andre, is an amateur wordsmith, who concocts hybridised poetry by piecing together literary giants from Steinbeck to Shakespeare, before performing them to his friends. As he goes about it, the character – who you suspect might be likeable enough that he won’t see out the full film – prompts our leads to take a long hard look at themselves. But again, his dialogue would have come across as saccharine or unbelievable in the hands of a less-skilled performer. As it is, Tobin’s delivery, which moves seamlessly between intentionally hammy to deadly serious, makes such a scene-stealing impact that in a mainstream movie it would have brought talk of Supporting Role awards. Similarly, Heard’s Jamal serves as an emotional conscience in one of the film’s lowest moments, conveying the complexity of courage – determination to do something while still overtly bricking it – effortlessly.
In the company of such performances, Navarro might have stood out for the wrong reasons – but he still puts in an earnest shift as Antonio that warrants praise. He evidently has the most work to do of the cast, when it comes to acting the age of his character, looking old enough that it initially seems odd that he is so diminutive and child-like when conversing with his teacher. However, his commitment and emotional rawness – particularly in the scenes where he comes to verbal blows with Lita – are commendable to the point that, by the end of the film, any disbelief of his age will be firmly suspended.
Lita is meanwhile brought to life by a complex and measured performance from Carvill. Having endeared herself to the audience in early scenes, by offering the most relatable, empathetic performance of a young woman torn between her commitments to her loved ones and her determination to make a mark on the world, when she finally lets loose, we are with her utterly. Every angry beat she hits in her increasingly confident speeches, defending herself or her community, comes to land like a punch in the triumphant final bout of a film about a prize-fighter.
That is slightly undermined by the movie’s ending – which meanders on after her final address. What might have been an impactful climax akin to The Great Dictator instead peters out into a series of Return of the King vignettes. It is almost as if Holland cannot bear to say goodbye to his own creations. But when they are this good, that might be entirely understandable.
Moon Students is a production which is carried to breath-taking heights by the electric performances of its actors, as well as its composed, emotionally mature, approach to the socio-political conflicts which have defined our pandemic era. While there are some moments where it flies a little too close to the sun, most of the time the film’s script also strikes the right balance to reach those same heights and deliver a memorable and moving portrait of a world in desperate need of change.