Director Robert Mulligan may not have been a great director by most Hollywood popularity or artistic standards, but he truly was a powerful and intuitive master storyteller of the “coming of age” film. From his adaptation of Harper Lee’s pre-teen age tale of wisdom and life lessons in 1962’sTo Kill a Mockingbird, to the 1971 story of an adolescent boy’s discovery of his sexuality with an older woman in The Summer of ’42, to the early adulthood dilemmas and commitments in the 1963 Love With a Proper Stranger, Mulligan’s ability to realistically tug heart strings made for very special cinematic memories. This goes for his final film, the exceptional 1991 hidden gem The Man in the Moon, which featured the film debut of then-14-year-old Reese Witherspoon.
Written by Jenny Wingfield, The Man in the Moon is set in the summer of 1957, rural Louisiana and concerns the coming of age of young Dani Trant (Witherspoon), a sweet and innocent 14 year old. She lives with her parents and two sisters – Maureen (Emily Warfield) is 17, beautiful, smart and heading for Duke University on a scholarship; Missy is a toddler. Dani’s father, Matthew (Sam Waterston), is a strict, but understanding individual who wants his girls to have the values and structure in their lives that will lead to making wise decisions. On Sunday mornings he prefers fishing to listening to any preacher’s sermons. Dani’s mother, Abigail (Tess Harper), is pregnant with her fourth child and literally has her hands full. Dani spends quiet evenings on the family’s screened-in front porch, listening to Elvis records, chatting with Maureen about life’s mysteries and talking about “the man in the moon” who will solve all their problems.
One afternoon, while skinny dipping in a nearby waterhole, Dani encounters a new neighbor – handsome older boy named Court Foster, who happens to like a cool swim after working on his mom’s farm. Court’s mom is a young widow with two other sons and is an old friend of Abigail, and once even dated Matthew. Young Dani is quickly bitten by the love bug and soon imagines kissing her new love. Her barely controlled new passion is even noticed by her dad who suggests inviting young Court over to the house. But when Court takes eyes on Maureen, the boy’s fancy is focused on the much more womanly older sister.
What makes this tale of puppy love so much more than just the cheap pulp romance novel is Wingfield and Mulligan’s naturalistic manner of dealing with the basic instinctive emotions of their young characters and the sincerity of the feelings they express. The triangle of tensions among Court, Dani and Maureen are emotionally realistic. Witherspoon is absolutely compelling: her ability to portray the simplest feelings with such sincere honesty makes Dani so appealing—not to mention her blonde ponytail and her radiant button-nose smile. You can tell she’s an actress who’s destined to be a star.
Other melodramatic plot turns, like Abigail’s concussion and later a farming accident, make this tale seem like somewhat mundane Hallmark Channel material. But even when Mulligan gets a bit more heavy handed, his honest handling of the characters’ dilemmas and the film’s message of caring understanding make for such a rewarding film experience. The Man in the Moon is a sensitive tale of young love and growing up. Although it had limited release in 1991 and may have even been quickly confused, or mistaken for other similarly titled films, like Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman biography The Man on the Moon or Diane Lane’s A Walk on the Moon, it deserves its place in history for Witherspoon’s fantastic debut performance.