Director: Robert Mulligan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I enjoy family films. I particularly like anything that smacks of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. There is something so warm and fuzzy about the simple, even lyrical dramas Hallmark chooses to sponsor, particularly during the holiday season; in an earlier era, I remember such homespun pleasures presented by Kraft, interrupted infrequently by recipe commercials using Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese and “Cheezoid.” Just so you know—I’m hardwired to accept sentimental, commercial dramas that promote family values.
This week it was revealed that Reese Witherspoon is now Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Although her brittle, obsessed performance in Election (1999) had some of us fooled that she might spend her time making challenging indie features, her roots and current career trajectory—now well established by her asking price—are mainstream all the way. The best evidence for that fact can be found in her film debut, The Man in the Moon. While it’s a bit risqué for early evening television, this is the kind of film parents should be happy to watch with their tweens and teens, hoping all the while that the kind of romantic/sexual awakenings on the screen represent the kinds of choices their children are up against in this toddling new 21st century. Nonetheless, I believe there is reason to hope that innocence hasn’t really gone completely out of fashion.
The story, set in 1957 small-town Louisiana, centers on the Trant family. Mama Abby (eternally rural Tess Harper), pregnant with her fourth child; Papa Matthew (Sam Waterston), a stalwart sort; 17-year-old Maureen (Emily Warfield); and 14-year-old Dani (Witherspoon) live in the kind of large, faux-antebellum house with a wraparound, screened porch we all imagine we’d want to grow up in. It’s summer, and the girls beat the heat by sleeping on the porch. Dani, just starting to awaken to the opposite sex, has a crush on Elvis Presley. She lounges on her cot spinning a single of his “Loving You” as Maureen undresses nearby, revealing her curves and filled-up bra. Maureen is considered a beauty and is much sought after by the boys in town. Dani, plain and still railing against wearing skirts, wonders if she will ever attract a suitor. Maureen cautions her not to hurry. Growing up is confusing, and Maureen is often in despair about ever knowing what she really wants and, worse, ever getting it.
One Sunday, Dani races out of her church clothes and runs to a waterhole on the neighboring Foster farm, now long unoccupied. She goes skinny dipping, unaware that a boy is making his way to the hole. He jumps in, startling her as she quickly covers her breast buds. Both accuse the other of trespassing until the young man, 17-year-old Court Foster (Jason London), says his family owns the property. They’ve just moved back to town.
Court is a handsome boy, and Dani develops a crush on him, signaled, of course, by being as nasty to him as possible until he tells her that he likes her spunk. Then she gets some instruction from Maureen on how to kiss and behave around boys. She tries to get Jason to kiss her in the waterhole, but he rejects her brusquely with the suggestive line, “Well you just almost got yourself more than kissed, little girl.” Eventually, she persuades him to be the first boy to kiss her. But her further ambitions toward him are thwarted when he meets Maureen.
This film has the feel of a play to me in the way the dialogue is written and delivered. The actors seem to declaim more than emote, presenting a classic formula for sentimentality. There are some violent and disturbing moments in the film, but aside from a whipping Matt delivers to Dani, they are the stuff of melodrama. For example, a storm suddenly kicks up after Court rejects Dani at the waterhole, setting up a potential tragedy in the Trant family. When the sisters share a mutual loss and then reconcile their rift over Court, it isn’t deeply felt. A possible love triangle between Matt, Abby, and Court’s mother Marie (Gail Strickland), a widow who dated Matt first, is considered by the screenwriter and dropped. Abby got him, and that’s that. The story demands family harmony no matter what.
And perhaps that’s the beauty of The Man in the Moon to me. Yes, it romanticizes family bonds, first love, and bygone values even as it allows fear, estrangement, and death to bite around the edges. Children need to know that they are safe while they explore some of the complexities of life yet to come, from disappointment in love to predatory adults and raging hormones. When Dani forgives her father for beating her, “I know you feel bad about taking the strap to me … You were scared, I know that,” we understand that Dani is starting to see her father as a person, not the omnipotent figurehead at the top of the family pyramid. When she runs to him after witnessing a terrible accident near the end of the film, young viewers can rest assured that Matt’s earlier show of weakness and Dani’s recognition of it will not affect his ability to continue to provide her with protection and reassurance.
The Man in the Moon has lessons to teach, but they come out of the experiences of the characters, particularly Dani, and therefore provide young viewers role models with whom they can identify. It is important to introduce children to life in ways that will neither scare them to death nor bore them to tears. Perhaps some teens will be too sophisticated for The Man in the Moon, but many of them won’t. And adults like me with a corny streak as wide as Iowa will enjoy the simple nostalgia, likeable characters, and loving families lovingly presented in this film.