Man in the Moon, The (1991): Reese Witherspoon Stunning Acting Debut

The Man in the Moon marks the stunning acting debut of a 14-year old Reese Witherspoon, who would become a major star a decade later.

It’s the final film of director Robert Mulligan, perhaps best known for his 1962 masterpieces, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Set in the summer of 1957 in rural Louisiana, it’s a classic coming of age, centering on a romantic triangle of two sisters in love with the same boy.

Dani Trant (Reese Witherspoon) an adolescent of 14, is told by her sensitive father Matthew (Sam Waterston) that she is “too big to be running off by herself.”

Dani and older sister Maureen (Emily Warfield), who is going off to college in the fall, are very close. Maureen helps take care of their younger sister, Missy, while their mother Abigail (Tess Harper) is pregnant.

Dani however prefers to run off into the neighbor’s pond, swimming in the nude. She is immediately smitten upon meeting her new neighbor, Court Foster (Jason London), who’s 17. Court kicks Dani out of his pond. When Dani goes home, her mother tells her to wash up because an old friend is coming for dinner with her children.

The Trants’ old friend turns out to be a widow, Mrs. Foster (Gail Strickland) with her three sons Court, Dennis, and Rob. Court perceives and calls Dani “a little girl.” When Dani’s father tells Dani to accompany Court into town for groceries, Dani and Court drive into town and start to get along.

Maureen goes on a date to a dance with her boyfriend Billy Sanders (Bentley Mitchum), but when Billy wants to park his car and have sex, Maureen breaks up with him, based on her belief that “love should be beautiful.”

Dani asks Maureen for advice on how to kiss a boy, and Maureen demonstrates by practicing on her hand. Dani and Court go swimming during the hot days and become close friends.  One night, Dani sneaks off and swims with Court until they are about to kiss. Court pushes Dani away and says she is a little girl that doesn’t know what she’s doing, and runs off home.

Dani’s mother trips on a root, and is rushed to the hospital for treatment. When her father returns home, he spanks Dani with his belt. The next day, Court brings food to the Trant house and apologizes to Dani.

The next, while swimming, the two share Dani’s first kiss. Dani is still hurt and angry at her father for hitting her, and when he feels remorseful for using his belt, she is distanced, addressing him coolly with “Yes Sir” or “No Sir” to his questions.

When Court comes over for dinner, he meets Maureen–it is love at first sight for both. Over the next few days, Dani is getting pushed away by Court. While the family goes to pick up Abigail and the new baby from the hospital, Court and Maureen consummate their love in the open fields.

Going back to discing the fields, Court falls off the tractor, and is badly injured. Dani sees this, and races home to tell her father. When Matthew returns home, he has some of Court’s blood on his clothes–Court has died. Maureen hides her pain at first, while Dani bursts into tears.

Matthew tells Dani that although she has a right to be hurt, being mad won’t bring Court back, and Maureen will be her sister for life. Dani comforts Maureen, and the film ends with Maureen and Dani talking outside on the porch at night as the summer end, looking up at the moon and becoming initmate again.

The cinematography by Oscar-winner Freddie Francis is sharp and poignant, with occasional lyrical touches that heighten this extremely touching and brutally honest coming of age saga. The whole tale, which is admittedly old-fashioned by standards of the 1990s, is infused with a bitter-sweet, often melancholy and nostalgic, but decidedly unsentimental tone.

Cast

Sam Waterston as Matthew Trant

Tess Harper as Abigail Trant

Gail Strickland as Marie Foster

Reese Witherspoon as Dani Trant

Jason London as Court Foster

Emily Warfield as Maureen Trant

Bentley Mitchum as Billy Sanders

Ernie Lively as Will Sanders

Dennis Letts as Doc White

Earleen Bergeron as Eileen Sanders

Anna Chappell as Mrs. Taylor

Brandi Smith as Missy Trant

Derek and Spencer Ball as Foster Twins