F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 5, 2014)

5 12 2014

“The Man in the Moon” is a film that boasts many milestones.  Sadly, it is the last film of director Robert Mulligan, an accomplished (if not heavily rewarded) filmmaker whose credits include “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  On a lighter note, however, it is the debut film of Reese Witherspoon.

Her first performance comes not as some thankless supporting role but rather fortuitously as the lead in a very rare female coming-of-age story.  As Dani, a fiery 14-year-old experiencing a romantic awakening in 1950s rural Louisiana, Witherspoon gets some meaty material to chew on.  She spits sharp-tongued sass and wears her passionate emotions on her sleeve, foreshadowing two decades worth of memorable characters.

But “The Man in the Moon” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not simply for the novelty of seeing a pint-sized Elle Woods.  The movie actually holds up quite well as a whole, providing a rather stirring emotional journey.  (Don’t believe me?  Lena Dunham and Jimmy Fallon both count themselves as fans, even raving at length about it.)  Obvious, unabashed melodrama rarely works this well.

Mulligan supplies the film with plenty of corny underscoring and heightened sentimentality, which complements some of the plot developments that feel ripped out of a soap opera.  Yet these elements hardly stifle the satisfaction of watching “The Man in the Moon.”  It captures an innocence and purity of spirit that can supersede the banalities.

As Dani pursues her first love, her older farmhand neighbor Court (Jason London), something always rings beautifully true.  The film understands both the joy of discovering shared affection as well as the pain of uncovering competing attractions, bundling them all together into one touching package.  I just wish I was around in 1991 to see this when it came out, if only so I could have called that Reese Witherspoon was headed for stardom.  Perhaps the only bigger slam dunk for success from a teenage acting debut was Natalie Portman in “The Professional.”

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