In "The Light of the Moon," actress Stephanie Beatriz offers a truthful, heartbreaking look at the ways sexual assault survivors live with trauma.
Photos courtesy of Jessica M. Thompson
Halloween may be over, but the true horrors that haunt women are still lurking both in the shadows and in plain sight. The topic of sexual harassment, assault, and rape has dominated international discussion in the last month, largely as it pertains to men in Hollywood and the entertainment industry's power imbalance.
On-screen glorification of rape and assault has been a point of contention for years in television and film, but that hasn't stopped filmmakers, writers, or directors—most of them men—from inserting hard-to-watch scenes of sexual violence in their projects. Some of the most infamous depictions of sexual violence include Jonathan Kaplan's The Accused, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Although their graphicness ranges from the gratuitous to the insinuated, this permeation of sexual assault is too often used as a plot device that gives female characters something to react to—a devastating raison d'etre—or, worse, a throwaway narrative to illustrate something about a male anti-hero at the story's center.
Jessica M. Thompson's indie film The Light of The Moon, released this week, offers a more truthful depiction of rape that is considerably less flashy or surrounded by harmful fantastical hype. Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Stephanie Beatriz leads as Bonnie, an architect living in Brooklyn with her boyfriend. What begins as a normal night out with friends—drinking, doing a bump in the bathroom, a short walk home—ends with Bonnie being dragged into an alley and forced up against a brick wall. The camera focuses squarely on Beatriz's face as she offers up her wallet and anything else that might stop the masked man from doing what he is about to do.
"Most films that tackle the subject are either a sexy revenge fantasy or a weird sexualized rape or this person who was not really anything until this thing happened and now they're like a full-fleshed character," Beatriz told Broadly, "which isn't the real story of rape."
The rape happens very early on the film, because the rest of The Light of The Moon, which premiered at SXSW earlier this year, is not the story of a victim-turned-vigilante, but the "normal" life Bonnie is forced to return to after something so debilitating happened to her.
"I know a lot of people who have been sexually assaulted, and I think the real story is the one we don't talk about which is what happens after," Beatriz told Broadly. "How do you get back to the place of like being yourself? You can't ever really go back, so how do you move forward? How do you make the transition from victim to survivor? That's what this film is about. I think it's really powerful and also it's a story I haven't seen told before."
While French feminist film Baise-moi or horror flicks like I Spit On Your Grave have given their victimized characters license to become man-hating killing machines, The Light of the Moon is a more relatable story of how Bonnie feels about her well-meaning boyfriend's overprotective coddling after her attack, and how it affects their relationship. She asks if he ever thought about her assault while they were having sex in an honest exchange that has certainly never been broached on film—one that most male writers and directors haven't considered.
"I know a lot of people who have been sexually assaulted, and I think the real story is the one we don't talk about which is what happens after. How do you get back to the place of like being yourself? You can't ever really go back, so how do you move forward?"
"You just don't see that side of it most of the time unfortunately because the ratio of women directors and writers in Hollywood is so ridiculously low," Beatriz said. She said the film had a female director of photography and women-majority crew, a point of pride for her the actor, but also a dynamic that shaped The Light of The Moon's ability to capture the reality of a rape survivor's aftermath. That kind of authenticity was important to Beatriz, especially as someone who hasn't been through a situation like that herself.
"When I read the script I was like, 'I haven't seen anything like it,' but also because I'm not a survivor, I sent it to a friend who is," Beatriz said. "I said, 'Look, this could be really triggering for you, I understand if you can't get through it. The rape happens like 10 minutes in and the rest of the movie is her figuring shit out. Can you read this for me?' She wrote me back right away and said, 'Please do this film.'"
Her friend's vote of confidence helped Beatriz feel confident about taking on the role, which is considerably different from her day job as the stoically sassy Detective Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Beatriz squeezed shooting the film on the off-season of her Fox sitcom, but found it to be emotionally challenging in a different way.
"There were a couple times I felt myself take it home," Beatriz said. "Like there were a couple times where I found myself crying at really strange things while I was watching cable at the end of the day—like 'Why am I sobbing right now? I'm watching The Simpsons! This doesn't compute. Oh, because you have all this extra emotion that needs to get out of you somehow.'"
Where white women have been cast more frequently in projects about sexual assault (both as leading and supporting actors), The Light of the Moon offers a Latina lead. "I know Jessica was specifically looking for an actress of color to be the lead role because she is a huge proponent of giving people opportunities that they don't usually get," Beatriz said. "And I think the percentages of Latina female leads in films are so low—I can't even begin to describe it for you. I think once she saw the work that I had done, collectively, but especially Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she was like, 'Oh, there's going to be a lightness she can bring to this.' I have one foot in comedy, and another one in drama so she needed that balance and I think—I hope—that I brought it."
Coupled with Thompson's specific writing and directing, Beatriz's performance makes The Light of the Moon a project that elevates the canon of films focusing heavily on a sexual assault.
She is in every scene, working to forget what happened to her while dealing with incessant phone calls from her concerned mother—who doesn't know about the incident—and co-workers who think she was mugged and unfortunately say the wrong things. Bonnie chooses to keep the rape a secret from everyone but her boyfriend, largely because she doesn't want to have to think, talk, or even acknowledge it. But it starts to affect every facet of her life, leading her to consider facing her reality rather than wishing it away. The painfulness of this realization is not only evident, but a driving force of the film that gives viewers an excruciating yet necessary look at the aftershock of surviving sexual assault.
Beatriz says she's the kind of leading woman who isn't often given the opportunity to shine, but she hopes her films help usher in a new era of Hollywood equity.
"The great thing about that is Hollywood really listens when you put your money where your mouth is. They really listen," Beatriz said. "Wonder Woman is an incredible example. So is Atomic Blonde. So is Girls Trip. All these moves that are female-led, many of them female produced—we're going to see them in droves because we want to see ourselves. We want to see different versions of ourselves. The time is now—it's happening all around us and it's only going to get better."
And cinema's stories about sexual assault will only grow more nuanced, honest, and powerful with women telling their truths not only about the experiences themselves, but the true heroism that comes from reckoning with its impact.