Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Jason London, Emily Warfield, Sam Waterston, Tess Harper
Rated PG-13 (probably for Sensuality, Brief Nudity and Language, and for a Disturbing Image)
Relationships are complicated. Especially when you're fourteen. That's when hormones start running amok and you're incredibly naïve in the treacherous waters of love. What makes "The Man in the Moon" so special is that it acknowledges this. Even the better romances like "Titanic" or more appropriately, "The Notebook," streamline it from the "meet cute" to the "happily ever after." Not here. Romance is portrayed as it really is: where mixed messages, uncertainty and betrayals cause as much pain as love.
Dani (Witherspoon) is the precocious daughter of two farmers, stern Matthew (Waterston) and heavily pregnant Abigail (Harper). She is very close to her older sister Maureen (Warfield), with whom she shares chores and taking care of their infant sibling. One day the adventurous Dani is going for a swim at the local pond when she meets Court Foster (London), who moves in next door. It isn't love at first sight, but it doesn't take long for a spark to emerge. They grow very close, and while Dani falls head over heels for Court, he has mixed feelings about romancing someone so young (he's sixteen). Then he meets Maureen.
What I liked about this movie is that the characters are able to change their minds. Too often in film, especially in the romance genre, the characters are defined by their single minded focus to be with the one they love (even if they don't realize it at first). That's not necessarily a criticism, since if the lovebirds are appealing and there's enough chemistry, such details hardly matter. But it does give this film depth and feeling that few romances manage.
The performances are outstanding, and leading the way is Reese Witherspoon. Ironically, she wasn't an actress at the time she was cast. She had gone to audition to become an extra, and was instead cast in the lead role. Whoever made the decision to take the risk and cast her made the right one. Her co-stars Jason London and Emily Warfield are just as good, but it's Witherspoon who provides the spark that takes the film to the next level. Witherspoon specializes in playing characters who are far more intelligent and precocious yet still emotionally vulnerable. This can be seen in films such as "Cruel Intentions" and "Fear," and that quality is what makes this such a powerful experience.
A lesser movie would have turned either Maureen or Court into villains. Or both. But the screenplay by Jenny Wingfield is too smart for that. Maureen loves and respects Dani too much to intrude, and does her best to avoid it. Court is unsure of where he stands until he meets Maureen. Both do things that are cruel to Dani, but not out of malice. Someone was going to get hurt no matter what and director Robert Mulligan lets things play out naturally.
The film isn't perfect. It's a few minutes too long, or rather, a few minutes could have been excised from the middle and replaced with a short scene or two between Maureen and Court. And while Sam Waterston is effective as the stern Southern father, he still feels miscast. Robert Patrick would have been a better choice.
Such flaws are mere quibbles. Romances are difficult to pull off. Just compare "Titanic" to "Twilight." But when they succeed on that level and more, it's something to be treasured.