Kalispell, Montana, the land of cowboys and cattle—or as the film’s resident bard, Paul (Paul Dickinson), intones early on, a “glorified prairie pit-stop town,” where state fairs, auto races, empty barns, and deep rivers for skinny-dipping together constitute an offering up of a distinctly American experience. It’s an oft-repeated truism of the Mountain West that the geographical area boasts little else beyond its natural beauty. Acknowledging these biases, writer-director Britni West’s Tired Moonlight, shot in resplendent 16mm, attempts to take a truer, unornamented measure of a small town’s way of life.
A brief montage of road kill, a caterpillar, shimmering leaves, galloping horses, and mountain peaks, all played to eerie synth music, quickly establishes the experimental tenor of the film. The cuts are often abrupt and the camera almost always handheld, a fitting aesthetic for a film about characters that lead humble lives. The narrative drifts in and out of various characters, but it’s the two women working low-wage jobs that provide Tired Moonlight’s anchor. Dawn (Liz Randall), a middle-aged single woman, pays the bills as an innkeeper and tries her hand selling at the downtown auctions. (And as if that wasn’t enough to make ends meet, she hauls a bulky copy machine home one day in order to print off a “lifetime of crossword puzzles” to sell on eBay). Sarah (Hillary Berg), a young and self-reliant single mother, pays her dues as a cashier at a local supermarket. Adult life is upon her, but that doesn’t stop her from riding the shopping carts. Their lives echo each other and intersect—at one point, literally so, when Dawn is about to enter another suite and a jump cut reveals Sarah in Dawn’s position.
The pressure to earn a living is constantly reiterated throughout Tired Moonlight. Mike (Alex Karpovsky), a video-store clerk, thinks about getting out of his dwindling “movie business” and switching back to highway work. And while the adults play out the familiar plight of earning a living, Sarah’s daughter (Rainleigh Vick) and her friends play games under a clear sky. They take naps on haystacks and paint their nails. Admittedly, some of the outdoor scenes with the children, the camera roving around their faces, too overtly smacks of Terence Malick. For the most part, however, the film’s poetic qualities seldom degenerate into sentimentality. West proves she has a keen eye for the quotidian, capturing as much as the characters’ expressions, the simple movements of their shoulders and hands. The filmmaker dwells on the fly in the room and the ending to a successful solitaire match. And this is one of the film’s greatest strengths: that it can effectively harness the droll, unassuming moments of daily life into some semblance of meaning for the characters.
Films hardly work properly on charm and whimsy alone, and it’s to West’s credit that she’s yoked Tired Moonlight’s experimental sequences with the hard reality of characters trying to figure things out. As a result, the film feels serious but never preachy, humorous but hardly frivolous. Instead, toward the end, a sequence of fireworks reminds one of the kinds of effervescent wonder found in the early works of Naomi Kawase: tensile, sober, yet strangely uplifting.