It’s Reese Witherspoon’s film debut.
Movies about ’60s childhoods were popular in the ’90s, with 1991 indie The Man in the Moon creeping in under the radar. The Southern coming-of-age drama from director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird, Same Time, Next Year) offered Reese Witherspoon her first role in film. I remember being impressed and slightly jealous of the actress’s visible talent when I was a kid watching it on VHS.
Based on a screenplay by Jenny Wingfield, The Man in the Moon is steeped in nostalgia for warm summer nights spent sleeping on a screened-in porch and hot afternoons spent swimming. Witherspoon is 14-year-old Dani, who wants more than friendship from new neighbor Court (Jason London, Dazed and Confused). When Court meets Dani’s older sister Maureen (Emily Warfield), things are further complicated. Sam Waterston and Tess Harper star as parents of the girls, attempting to rein in their free spirits.
Something that stands out more to me as an adult on this second viewing— for a movie focused on female adolescence, The Man in the Moon certainly has some punishing messages for teen girls. Don’t run out to go swimming in the evening with a boy, or your mom might fall and have complications with her pregnancy. Don’t have afternoon sex with a boy, or he might make a dangerous error in judgment. The Man in the Moon seems eager to celebrate the free will of these middle-class white girls, yet it throws in certain story elements as if to fault their decisions.
It’s not exaggeration to say Reese Witherspoon’s performance is the best thing the film has going for it. Other facets — the score which sounds like a Windham Hill sampler at times, and the screenplay including trite lines like, “I never thought I could feel this way” — have aged far less gracefully. Witherspoon’s Dani is a determined soul with emotions she is unable to keep hidden. Waterston, Harper, and even Gail Strickland (as Court’s widowed mother) play their roles with aplomb, but Witherspoon remains the standout.
The Man in the Moon is now available on BluRay from Twilight Time. Special features include the (spoileriffic) original theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.