**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Robert Mulligan

Written by Jenny Wingfield

With Reese Witherspoon, Emily Warfield, Sam Waterston, Tess Harper, and Jason London.

Apparently by coincidence, Robert Mulligan’s latest film, The Man in the Moon, is set in 1957, the year Mulligan’s first movie, Fear Strikes Out, was released. The 50s, of course, are remembered as the decade when American pop culture saluted youth as a group unto itself, and though Mulligan’s early films never explicitly bought into the hype about teenagers as a monolithic social force–he was and is far too concerned with particulars to adopt such journalistic generalizations–they did share the contemporary preoccupation with young people’s inner lives.

Mulligan avoided professional typecasting by directing a judicious mixture of projects, though for a time it looked like he would specialize in slick Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson vehicles at Universal. And he frequently returned to charting youth’s psychic tumult, an interest he pursued persistently from the 50s through the indulgent 60s, and even through the far less accommodating, unintrospective 80s. An indication of his preoccupation with the singular and the exceptional, Mulligan’s definition of youth has always been loose, generous enough to include late childhood (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Other), early adolescence (Summer of ’42), late adolescence (Bloodbrothers), and very early adulthood (Love With the Proper Stranger, Baby, the Rain Must Fall, Inside Daisy Clover). Youth is not a matter of chronology, but of an emotional state. A young person is defined as a novice of the heart, someone who has dealt only passively with the unpredictable consequences of familial or romantic love, which can wound and heal in a single blow.

Love’s dual nature is given full play in The Man in the Moon, the story of Dani Trant, a 14-year-old girl from Natchitoches County in rural Louisiana whose life is shaped equally by the hard livelihood her family wrests from the land and the ballads of Elvis Presley. Bored by the land’s dry routine and primed by Elvis’s husky promises, Dani (short for Danielle) is set for the potential romance that comes her way in the person of Court Foster, the 17-year-old boy who, along with his mother and younger siblings, moves to the adjacent farm.

First-love stories have a way of settling into a predictable succession of bliss, disappointment, and resignation–a bittersweet concoction that resembles reality just enough to disguise the sentimental evasions. Mulligan’s film follows this general path but takes a number of detours, deepening the psychological details and increasing the number of portraits–as if asking for trouble. But by adding so many details, Mulligan paints a picture of Dani’s transformation that’s more realistic, more persuasive, and ultimately far more touching.

The film opens like a fairy tale under a lunar spotlight, during an evening’s front-porch conversation between Dani and her older sister, Maureen. In the early summer heat the sisters compare the state of their lives, Dani envying the certainty of Maureen’s educational and romantic future as the older girl prepares to enter college, Maureen musing about the undefined discontent that has begun to mysteriously well up inside her.

This is the first effort of screenwriter Jenny Wingfield; a typical first-timer, she has rooted the story in autobiography. But whether Wingfield has a good memory or just an ability to reproduce the cadences of youthful speech, this sequence and similar ones in which the characters take their psychic temperatures are unclinical and naturalistic, dispensed with ease and charm. Mulligan’s intervention is plain in the story’s discursive nature and in the way it approaches the melodramatic incidents that are inevitable in life but improbable in art.

The anecdotal side trips start almost immediately, when Maureen’s dissatisfactions are brought to the fore. Although she’s far from sure that she wants to go to college, staying at home and facing a likely marriage doesn’t appeal either. Trapped by inertia, she halfheartedly continues a dalliance with a local boy, Billy Sanders. They go to a country-club dance, where she brushes off the advances of Billy’s father, the owner of the area’s largest business, a shirt factory. Then on the drive home, angered by the hapless Billy’s aggressive sexual demands, she finally breaks off the relationship.

In the meantime Dani goes skinny-dipping at the local swimming hole and has her first run-in with Court when he bursts out of the woods and charges unexpectedly into the water, first surprising, then angering, then embarrassing her. When Court turns up at her home the next day with his mother and younger brothers, her embarrassment is compounded by bravura, petulance, and then nascent affection. It turns out that Dani will have plenty of opportunities to get close to Court; Court’s mother, an old chum of Dani’s mother and a former girlfriend of her father, has returned to the family farm upon the death of her husband and plans to work in the shirt factory while Court works the land.

This is a remarkable compression of information. In only a few reels the region’s social structure and Dani’s family place within it are limned. Dani’s changing temperament, in which a newborn and vague desire is mixed with the residual emotions of childhood, and Maureen’s, in which the desire has become more precise and pointed, are also laid bare. Even so removed a character as Court’s mother, who’s in emotional retreat, is brilliantly evoked.

These patterns are mirrored by Mulligan’s camera. His world is one of constant shifts and changes; his restless, prowling camera records even the simplest actions with a tracking shot–even if it’s just Dani’s mother crossing the yard to talk to one of her children–as if to mimic the interior motion of the characters, a process of relentless, almost involuntary change.

Though Court has acceded to a kind of intimacy with Dani, the romance has progressed to only one quick kiss made at Dani’s insistence immediately before Maureen meets Court for the first time. Dani’s love life has been a huge upset for her family–her mother suffers a miscarriage after searching for Dani, who’d gone to a midnight swimming-hole meeting with Court. But the biggest blow for Dani comes when Maureen and Court fall in love.

Up to this point the film is a pastoral love story, despite its dark patches. The rhythms reflect the hazy progression of summer days, the relaxed tempo of warm, humid nights. Cinematographer Freddie Francis uses muted colors that not only are appropriate to the sun-bleached landscapes, but also give an easy, unforced emphasis to facial features, which become starkly expressive in even the most crowded scenes.

However, as Dani begins to see Court slip away from her and into the arms of her beloved, idolized sister, the film becomes almost deliriously subjective. Before, scenes were seen from a variety of viewpoints; now they’re filtered almost exclusively through Dani’s consciousness.

These sequences sing with emotion, as Mulligan, disdaining simple point-of-view shots, employs a virtuosic variety of approaches that don’t just reflect but actually embody the romantic panic Dani experiences but cannot understand. Only dimly aware that something is wrong between her and Court, she pays Court a visit. Pretending to be preoccupied with repairing a tractor, Court, hardly a master of his own feelings, rejects Dani’s attempts at intimacy with one of the cruelest of rebuffs: she is too young to understand him. Mulligan starts with a scene-setting medium shot, but as the conversation mounts in intensity he suddenly shifts to a blizzard of closer shots. Dani is shot in a long-lens close-up that emphasizes both the shock on her face and her physical and emotional isolation. In between, Mulligan cuts to her viewpoint on Court with a track in, paralleling the horror of her impending recognition of his indifference. Mulligan makes Dani’s last plaintive approach a wide medium shot, again a peculiar lens choice but one that suggests the emotional distance between the characters. Shooting her departure, he abruptly shifts to a closer, though still distant, shot that leaves the girl all alone. Dani’s emotions control not only her, but also how the camera watches her–and the two merge in painful eloquence.

By keeping his camera between the audience and the action, Mulligan forces us to see things as the characters do. His handling of dramatic incidents, even melodramatic ones, takes place at a similar remove. For even though the film is filled with a week’s worth of soap-opera crises, these are not evoked for the impact they could have directly on the audience but for the catalytic effect they have on the characters. Mulligan doesn’t hype the horrors or thrills of this or that event, but carefully scrutinizes their emotional aftereffects, spurning the operating theater in favor of the waiting room.

Although The Man in the Moon is frequently sad to the point of pain, it ends with a quietly optimistic poignancy. This is due partly to the film’s performances. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Dani, delivers not so much a performance as a documentary record of a 14-year-old’s growing pains; this is empathy, not acting. She is nearly matched by Emily Warfield as Maureen, who gives an unsentimental though touching portrait of a young woman faced with the excruciating choice of responding to her own heart or her sister’s. Sam Waterston and Tess Harper as Dani’s parents emphasize emotions by leaving their characters casually underplayed, and Gail Strickland is astonishingly vivid in her brief portrayal of Court’s mother.

But much of the film’s final peace comes from the reprise of the opening’s fairy-tale tone. It concludes with the same moon, the same porch, the same girls. Everything is the same, and everything is completely different, as if transformed by a spell.