film review: Moonlight Mile ***

A string of cars lines the street, ready to escort people to the funeral of a young girl. When her father settles into a car with his wife and would-be son-in-law, loud rock music plays and the driver quickly turns it off. The father simply asks him to drive, while the son-in-law tries to hold back laughter. From the backseat, the dead girl’s mother reaches to the front and cranks up the music, which accompanies them on their ride to the cemetery.

This early scene sets the stage perfectly for the rest of Moonlight Mile. It’s about a mother, father and their daughter’s fiance, and how they mourn the loss of their only child in the most unconventional of ways.

The mother, JoJo Floss, played by Susan Sarandon, throws self-help books like These Things Happen and Grieving for Grownups into the fire. She’s a writer who has trouble finding motivation after her daughter is murdered.

Dustin Hoffman portrays the father, Ben Floss, in an awesome performance that just begs for Outbreak to be locked in cinema’s quarantine chamber. He devotes his days to a real estate business, leaving little time to deal with his loss.

Indie-flick commoner Jake Gyllenhaal is the main character, Joe Nast. He was engaged to the girl before she was murdered, and is now living with her parents. He tosses and turns in his bed at the Floss’s home, struggling with weird dreams. He lazily agrees to partner Ben in his real estate business, despite no interest in the field and no prior experience. He’s simply lost without his fiance and his only real motivation throughout most of the film is to not upset her parents, whom he likes.

The saddest part of Moonlight Mile is the story behind it. Writer/director Brad Silberling based much of his screenplay on his own life. He was dating actress Rebecca Schaeffer when she was murdered in 1989, and he grew close to her parents after her death. Moonlight Mile is his first attempt at writing, and it is certainly a successful one, despite some shortcomings.

Silberling’s own experiences are much sadder than the actual film. For a movie whose trailer looks like it could make Vin Diesel bawl in the aisles, the finished product doesn’t have the timing and tempo necessary to evoke emotional reactions in most people. Overly-sensitive girls are still going to cry, of course, but most guys won’t be holding back the tears on this one.

Moonlight Mile is pretty unique in that it bypasses the opportunity for a cheap tearful moment when it doesn’t show the girl’s death or even the family’s reaction to finding out that she’s dead. It starts with the grieving period, which makes it rely heavily on the acting performances from Sarandon, Hoffman and Gyllenhaal.

Hoffman is superb as Ben, the sensible one of the trio, always thinking about the proper thing to do. If his role were a little smaller he might have garnered a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but his performance will likely be overshadowed by this winter’s sure-thing lineup to garner a Best Actor nom.

Sarandon is solid as JoJo, the perfect counter to Ben’s logical persona. She says what she means and holds nothing back. Joe is able to be honest with her, while he is still afraid of how Ben might react.

Gyllenhaal gives another strong performance as Joe, although this one doesn’t stand out as much as his roles in Donnie Darko and The Good Girl. Still, it’s nice to see him in a respectable mainstream role. His next film will be Roland Emmerich’s action thriller The Day After Tomorrow. Hopefully, Gyllenhaal’s cashing in on that one, because if it’s anything like Emmerich’s last project, Eight Legged Freaks, he’s going to need the money to buy himself a new career.

Shawn Wines can be reached at