One of my favorite things about getting the chance to see movies before they open theatrically is being able to watch a film with virgin eyes. To see it unspoiled, before hundreds of critics and dozens of press interviews ruin all the surprises and tell me everything I could want to know and then some, all before the first frame ever hits the screen in front of me. Sometimes, though, it’s even better than simply being free to form my own untainted opinion. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’m able to experience the exhilaration of discovering something—a story, an idea, a brilliant bit of cinematography, a sight gag or, on the best days, an exciting new talent—that, perhaps, most people haven’t yet.
That’s the case with Moonlight Mile, my favorite film of 2002 so far and one that features one of the most superbly affecting performances I’ve seen in a long time. No, not the one given by Dustin Hoffman. Not Susan Sarandon’s, either. It’s not Jake Gyllenhaal (who’s wonderful) and not even Holly Hunter, who appears briefly as a district attorney.
No, despite having these heavy-hitting Oscar winners and much-lauded talents on deck, the film’s most striking performance, and the one that no doubt marks the birth of an outstanding career, is that of newcomer Ellen Pompeo. I’ll come back to her in a moment, only because I could ramble on about her work forever and I suspect you’d rather read a little bit about the actual movie.
Moonlight Mile—written and directed by Brad Silberling (City of Angels) and inspired by his own experiences following the murder of his girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer—centers around Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal), a sweet, good-natured young man whose fiancée is killed in a shooting at a local diner. Once the funeral is over, Joe is left to sort out his relationship with her parents, Ben and JoJo Floss (Hoffman and Sarandon), and to figure out what part he’s going to play in their lives now that the person linking them together is gone. On the one hand, he feels obligated to stay with them and assume the role of surrogate son-in-law. But, at the same time, a secret haunts him and he’s torn over what his future should hold.
Into this mix comes Bertie Knox (Pompeo), a mail clerk and waitress who develops a strong connection with Joe. She’s quirky, she’s beautiful… but she’s also hurting. She, too, has a secret and together she and Joe are forced to weigh the past against the present, and the truth against illusions and wishes.
The film is a quietly powerful meditation on love, loss, grieving and moving on. It is, at times, both funny and heartbreaking, poignant and witty, moving and mirthful. More importantly, it stays with you. It hangs on, it lingers and, as time passes and reflection sets in, it becomes better and better. Siberling’s screenplay has moments of sheer poetry deftly blended with lighthearted bits of humor. Chunks of dialogue and memorable moments (like JoJo’s delicate explanation of the four things she does every night before going to bed) have been floating in and out of my head since I left the screening. As lame and unimaginative as it may sound: it was *such* a good movie. Can you tell I loved it?
Each member of the cast is amazingly good. Hoffman, Sarandon, Gyllenhaal—all terrific. They each create wholly realized characters with breadth and depth and substance. You can tell what they’re feeling based on what they’re doing rather than what they’re saying, and their interactions and relationships feel natural, easy, relaxed… real. I suspect that all three will likely find nominations of some sort in their future for their work here.
But back to Ms. Pompeo. I warn you, this may tread right smack-dab into shamelessly sycophantic territory, but I can’t say enough great things about what she did with her role in this movie. She has an intense screen presence, but one that sneaks up on you. She is profoundly understated. No grandstanding, no scenery chewing, no big, loud showy outbursts or wordy soliloquies. Just some painfully raw, wonderfully nuanced, exquisitely acted work. Hers is a key supporting role, and one that might otherwise go unnoticed if left in the hands of a less talented actress. But she hits it out of the ballpark. Bertie is emotionally stripped naked onscreen as her well-guarded walls are taken down, brick by brick, and it’s a transformation that’s hypnotic to watch. Yes, I’m gushing, but she was really, truly *that* good. She more than holds her own against her critically acclaimed co-stars and, for me, stands out as the most noteworthy actor in the ensemble. I cannot wait to see what amazing things lie in her future, and I’m thrilled that I was able to unexpectedly stumble upon her all on my own.
She, and the movie, were fantastic discoveries.