Innocence Lost: Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon
by Mark Pfeiffer
Mark Pfeiffer is a film critic/producer who discusses current cinema on WOCC TV3's Now Playing. His reviews can also be heard on Youngstown, Ohio's Rock 104 and found online at http://www.dvdmon.com/ and his film-oriented blog at http://reeltimes.blogspot.com/. A member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) and a juror for the Columbus International Film and Video Festival, he currently works at Otterbein College as WOCC TV3's Assistant Director of Television, where he is in charge of production.
To Kill a Mockingbird is likely the film for which director Robert Mulligan will be best remembered. The film received eight Academy Award nominations in 1963, winning three Oscars, and in recent years American Film Institute voters have recognized it as one of the greatest 100 movies and Atticus Finch as the ultimate hero in American cinema. Studying Harper Lee’s novel continues to be a popular school assignment, which should provide ample opportunity for the film to be introduced to new generations. Without a doubt, To Kill a Mockingbird ranks among Mulligan’s finest work and deserves its classic status. Although his final film, 1991’s The Man in the Moon, lacks Mockingbird’s accolades and currency as a cultural touchstone, it also merits consideration as one of his best.
A blip on the box office radar—the Internet Movie Database reports gross receipts at a little over $2.8 million—The Man in the Moon may gain increased awareness in the years to come thanks to the film featuring Reese Witherspoon’s screen debut. (While Witherspoon’s place in Hollywood history remains to be determined, her current position as an in-demand, above-the-title actress and favorite with critics and moviegoers bodes well for the future.)
In this coming of age story Witherspoon plays the central role of fourteen-year-old tomboy Dani Trant. The middle daughter in a family with three children—soon to be four—Dani is treated like the son her father Matthew (Sam Waterston) so badly wants but doesn’t have. Having daddy dote on her isn’t so bad, but Dani desires to command the attention of boys like her older, college-bound sister Maureen (Emily Warfield) can. Dani, with her boyish figure, bemoans being “a lump”, especially in comparison to Maureen’s soft, curvy features. While Maureen has no problem catching the eyes of the boys—and one of their fathers—in their late 1950s Louisiana town, Dani’s romantic adventures are limited to mooning over Elvis.
Everything changes when seventeen-year-old Court Foster (Jason London) moves into the neighboring farm. Dani and Court’s first encounter in the Foster pond doesn’t go swimmingly, but before long they become friends. Dani’s affection for him changes her behavior almost overnight. Without being asked she assists more around the house, which comes as a great relief to her pregnant mother Abigail (Tess Harper). Down come the pictures of Elvis adorning her room and out come more feminine clothes and questions about kissing directed to Maureen. Court is fond of her, but it’s clear to the audience, although not to Dani, that he is hesitant to begin a romantic relationship. Still, Dani’s hope is not unfounded. A similar age difference existed between her mother and father, with Abigail feeling that Matthew would never notice her.
Working from Jenny Wingfield’s exquisite screenplay, Mulligan uses a delicate touch in revealing the confusion in growing up and the loss in discovering that the world isn’t as simple or perfect as children believe it to be. The Man in the Moon’s title comes from the opening scene, in which Dani and Maureen sit on the moonlit porch and discuss the latter’s uncertainty about her future. Their mom used to tell them “when things get all mixed up, all you have to do is tell the man in the moon,” who would solve their problems while they slept. Dani now dismisses the advice. “But that was kids’ stuff Maureen. We’re too old for make believe,” she says. By film’s end, with Dani’s youthful innocence lost and Maureen’s future no clearer, they talk again about what lies ahead.
Dani: Maureen, is it always gonna hurt this bad?
Maureen: Momma says it won’t.
Dani: I hope she’s right.
Maureen: I hope so.
Dani: You know, sometimes I think that nothing’s ever going to make sense
Maureen: Maybe life’s not supposed to make sense.
Dani: Doesn’t that scare you?
Maureen: Yes it does.
Dani: I wish I could still talk to the man in the moon. Don’t you?
Maureen: It would be nice.
Dani: Will we always talk to each other?
As The Man in the Moon ends here, the camera moves from the girls’ conversation to the moon, fully visible but tucked behind a tree, shining down on the Trant home. Mulligan’s elegant way of showing this symbol of youthful innocence, within view but out of reach, perfectly illustrates this transitional moment in the characters’ lives. The Man in the Moon establishes the image’s significance from the first frames. The film opens with a series of shots sweeping across the moon. Foreshadowing the metaphorical separation to come, the moon is farther away on each subsequent pass, with the sequence’s final shot panning from the sky to the Trant house.
Maturation and the ensuing loss of innocence are echoed in Mulligan’s 1971 film Summer of ’42. Both deal with adolescent struggles and heartache. Although The Man in the Moon is set approximately fifteen years later—the presence of Elvis’ Loving You album places it in 1957 at the earliest—the teenage experience remains similar from decade to decade. Through the narrator’s reminiscences of a pivotal time in fifteen-year-old Hermie’s life, Summer of ‘42 presents a single perspective of sexual awakening. Hermie is very curious and aggressive in exploring his nascent sexuality. He studies a medical textbook for clues, keeps track of personal bests regarding the length of time girls allow him to fondle their breasts, and aspires to lose his virginity with an older woman.
The Man in the Moon serves as the female response to Summer’s sexually fixated male viewpoint. (The one insight Mulligan grants to the male perspective in The Man in the Moon comes via flashes of sensual memory, a technique similarly used to convey how Hermie recalls Dorothy’s body in Summer of ’42.) Dani dreams of romance in the abstract. Maureen’s kissing lesson is just about the extent of her carnal knowledge. (Maureen has firsthand experience with pent-up boys like Hermie but doesn’t share this information with her younger sister.) Dani knows what she wants and uses passive-aggressive means to try and coax it from Court.
Hermie and Dani pursue seemingly unattainable first loves. The experiences are devastating for both, but where Summer of ’42 suggests deep emotional scarring that lasts into Hermie’s adulthood, The Man in the Moon finishes with tinges of sadness and hope. Summer’s narrator concludes, “In the summer of ’42…in a very special way, I lost Hermie forever.” The Man in the Moon’s ending is also bittersweet, but Dani is finding herself. The sparkling waters of the Edenic swimming hole where Court and Dani first met are muddied near the film’s end, an obvious but effective expressionist touch, yet Mulligan implies that she will recover from the pain. Innocence lost cannot be regained, but just as the moon’s phases are part of its cycle, so do human lives follow a natural progression of change.