Year: 1991
Director: Robert Mulligan
Writer: Jenny Winfield
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sam Waterston, Tess Harper, Emily Warfield

Most famous as the film that introduced future A-list superstar Reese Witherspoon to the big screen, The Man in the Moon is a much-romanticised look at the perils of female sexual initiation as experienced by the Trant sisters in 1950s Louisiana. Like À Ma Soeur!, it is narrated from the perspective of a younger sister watching her older sibling make the treacherous crossing into sexually active adulthood. Directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) and featuring Oscar nominees Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields) and Tess Harper (Crimes of the Heart) as the parents Matthew and Abigail Trant, it is nonetheless Witherspoon, as the tomboyish younger sister Dani, and Emily Warfield as her elder sister, the wide-eyed, ripe-for-the-plucking Maureen, who steal the show.

The film opens one night in the summer of 1957 at the Trant’s Louisiana farm as the sisters prepare for bed. The opening scenes are deeply nostalgic: one can easily imagine the hot, humid night with the moths beating against the panes of the glassed-in veranda where the Trant sisters undress and sleep together; this is an innocent Eden, before the days of prowling rapists and GoPro-toting amateur porn site up-loaders. Young Dani is besotted with Elvis while the older Maureen struggles with the tribulations of puberty. The inquisitive Dani presses her sister for details but gets rebuffed for being too young.

The next few scenes flesh out their lives: Abigail is heavily pregnant, Maureen has a date and Dani loves to go skinny-dipping in a swimming hole at the abandoned farm next door. It is Dani’s bare-bottomed rush for the cool of the river that gets the central plot underway. While Dani frolics in the water there’s another arrival at the swimming hole: young and handsome Court Foster (Jason London), whose widowed mother owns the farm and has just returned to live there. Already beholden to her society’s covenants and—like Colin in The Comfort of Strangers—ashamed of being seen nude, Dani scuttles up the riverbank and darts behind the bushes, one arm clutched over her budding breasts. Court, signalling a lack of sexual interest in Dani because of her age, jokes that she’s got nothing to hide—but there’s a darker moment: as Dani scampers off he can’t resist taking a peek.

The Man in the Moon

The dark moments aren’t restricted to the story; something is afoot in the production department. When Dani jumps into the creek, Witherspoon (or, more likely, her stunt double) appears to be genuinely naked; but on emerging she wears an ill-fitting skin-coloured shift. Even as The Man in the Moon attempts to portray puberty it falls prey to perhaps the most powerful of our sexual covenants: the disassociation between childhood and sexuality. This is not to say that the film would be improved by the absence of the shift, only to point out that even when attempting to discuss sexuality our covenants often exert a censoring role.

With Dani’s journey underway attention shifts to Maureen and her date with Billy Sanders (Bentley Mitchum), tough and smooth as brushed steel. Maureen’s father collars Billy and makes it abundantly clear that his eldest daughter must be returned unopened. Matthew Trant’s zealous defence of his daughter’s virginity is done with her best interests at heart, but notably it’s not Maureen’s but his idea of what comprise her best interests that matter—and they contain a good deal of self-interest: if Maureen remains chaste then Matthew and his family are spared any kind of scandal that might threaten their social standing, such as befell Lynda’s father in Wish You Were Here or Big Joe in Last Exit to Brooklyn. With Maureen’s body primed, but sex disallowed by the same social rules Elena falls foul of in À Ma Soeur! it’s no wonder the poor girl finds puberty a challenge.

While Maureen goes on her date, Court’s family visits the Trant farm. Court and Dani, needling each other, are despatched to the nearest town for supplies. Court drives at breakneck speed, narrowly avoiding an accident. Is he trying to scare the younger Dani or impress her? The scene is well handled, failing to provide any clear signposts. Inevitably, Dani and Court become firm friends.

Maureen, in the meantime, gets worked over by Billy Sanders and his father at a dance. The father offers to meet Maureen’s college expenses; the repayment structure is unspecified but self-evident. Leaving the dance, Billy tries to kiss Maureen but she rejects him because the statutory ingredient—lurrve—is absent. The Man in the Moon adheres to our sexual covenants by starkly dividing its characters into ‘good’ (the Trant and Foster families) and ‘bad’ (the Sanders family); the dividing line is the latter’s transgressive pursuit of sex without love. Billy drops off Maureen and departs with a squeal of rubber (quite a feat on a dirt road). With that, the Sanders are gone and the film has technically got no antagonist. But, as we shall see, the demon of sex itself soon assumes this function.

Attention switches to the teenage crush between Court and Dani. In a scene that fully showcases the talent that would later catapult Reese Witherspoon to stardom, Dani gets Maureen to teach her how to kiss then discusses her feelings (without, however, revealing their subject): “Have you ever liked somebody so much it almost makes you sick?” There’s more: “It’s like my stomach ties up in knots, and I can’t breathe, and sometimes I think I’m going to throw up.” Remember Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher, vomiting after performing oral sex on Walter? Dani has all the symptoms of sexual shame; as she faces the prospect of sex her society’s unconscious covenants, latently acquired throughout childhood, well up inside her. The mere thought of sex causes Dani to experience a sense of transgression that physically translates as nausea.

The Man in the Moon

Dani overcomes her queasy stomach and meets Court at the swimming hole. The portrayal of sex as the archfiend subtly begins with this scene occurring at night; innocent frolicking turns to danger as the two youngsters embrace and Dani angles for a kiss. Court stares longingly at Dani but ultimately rejects her, maintaining his stance as ‘good’ by emphasising that she’s sexually out of bounds by calling her a “little girl.”

Dani hurries home as a storm breaks over the Trant farm, waking her heavily pregnant mother. Abigail discovers Dani’s absence, runs across the yard, trips and falls. It’s a crucial moment in The Man in the Moon. To call it a coincidence misses the point; it is a deus ex machina intervention by the screenwriter to indirectly punish Dani for her socially illicit sexual dabbling. As far-fetched as this may seem, the combination of a sexually charged moment followed by a warning and/or supposedly coincidental punishment occurs twice more by the film’s end.

As far-fetched as this may seem, the combination of a sexually charged moment followed by a warning and/or supposedly coincidental punishment occurs twice more by the film’s end

Direct punishment for Dani isn’t long in coming. After taking Abigail to hospital, Matthew comes home to find Dani sitting on the stairs, very much the little girl in a fluffy pink dressing gown. Matthew whips off his belt and gives her a quick strapping. Dani signals her acceptance of both the punishment and the underlying covenant by rejecting Court the next day. Matthew holds a brief inquisition to establish whether anything untoward passed between Court and Dani (“No siree, not Court Foster”—the 15-year-old Witherspoon delivers the emotionally complex line with consummate ease) but is later overjoyed when Dani forgives him for using the strap. This is a deeply patriarchal moment, recognising the father figure’s right to use violence—notably, on a sexual part of his daughter’s anatomy—to enforce his community’s covenants.

Dani’s reconciliation with her father allows her to resume her relationship with Court on a new basis. By agreeing to only be friends they place sex out of bounds. This frees Dani to enjoy her first kiss without worrying where it might lead. While the earlier, transgressive swimming-hole scene took place at night, this one—where sex gets shoved back into its cage and acceptable, i.e. platonic, teenage emotions take centre-stage—occurs in bright sunlight. The moral signposts, signalled through the film’s lighting choices, couldn’t be clearer.

And, just as Dani was earlier punished for her sexuality, she is now rewarded for rejecting it: Matthew sanctions her friendship but asks her to bring Court to the house so he can “get a good look in his eyes.” We know what Matthew will be looking for: any sign of shameful sexual urges, manifesting as that inability to maintain eye-to-eye contact that Bud repeatedly demonstrated in The Brown Bunny. Court’s fulfilment of this request sets up the film’s next plot twist, his collision with the sexually ripe Maureen. The electricity between them is palpable as Dani’s infatuation with Court runs aground on the treacherous shoals of teenage sex.

The Man in the Moon

Court soon has Maureen alone and makes his interest clear. Emily Warfield handles the scene magnificently, her acting every bit as effective as Witherspoon’s. Moments into their first kiss, the phone rings in the film’s second instance of deus ex machina to announce the arrival of Abigail’s baby. “You’d better go,” Maureen croaks barely audibly through welled emotions in a beautifully delivered line, heeding the screenwriter’s warning—at least for now—about the perils of sex.

There’s a brief interlude centred on the baby, intercut with Maureen and Court in the raptures of young love. Maureen’s misty-eyed moments with Court contrast with the earlier scene between her and Billy Sanders and signal the screenwriter’s traditional sexual beliefs; just how fundamentalist these are will soon be seen. Mother and baby arrive home but Maureen isn’t around to witness it; with sex between her and Court emotionally sanctioned by their romance, she’s doing it in the grass in a clumsily prudish scene that reinforces The Man in the Moon’s beat-around-the-bushes conservatism. Maureen returns with the fruits of carnal knowledge, her blouse half hanging out and her hair in a tangle. Dani knows she’s been betrayed and rushes to give Court a piece of her mind—only to discover that in a post-coital stupor he’s fallen from his tractor and been run over by his own plough: the god in the machine strikes thrice.

Court’s death provokes a falling out between the two grieving sisters. After some solid fatherly advice that “Maureen’s gonna be your sister for a long, long time,” Dani forgives her elder sibling and the girls promise to never fall out again. The film ends with a sense of balance restored but troubling questions remain. The Man in the Moon is a gorgeous, sentimental, lyrical film, yet underneath its glossy surface lurks a medieval message: sex outside marriage courts divine retribution. But that’s not all. As with some of the other films in Sexcatraz, The Man in the Moon conveys vital information through what it omits.

Firstly, despite the supposedly positive ending of the reconciliation between Dani and Maureen, no attention is given to how their future sex lives might play out. Given the moralistic overtones of both the film and the society it portrays, it would be impossible for Maureen or Dani to entertain the thought of sex without fearing the same kind of heavenly lightning bolt that killed Court. Already programmed with the sex-negative beliefs deeply prevalent in the American South, the impact of Court’s death on the sisters’ psychosexual programming can readily be imagined. Arguably that’s outside the scope of the film, but it doesn’t take much to realise that while Dani and Maureen may be friends forever they will also both have a lifelong association between fear, guilt, death and sex—an association that the filmmakers at best ignore but tacitly seem to endorse.

Secondly, The Man in the Moon shows that, even with teenagers, the concept that one person can only be sexually intimate with one other is already deeply entrenched: Court must choose between Dani and Maureen, ensuring a fall-out between the sisters whoever he chooses. Having been emotionally straightjacketed by experiences such as those seen in Malèna, À Ma Soeur! and The Man in the Moon, most teenagers graduate into adulthood totally programmed to regard monogamous relationships as the only socially legitimate outlet for their sexual impulses[1]. The next chapter explores the impact of this programming on our most significant social structure—marriage.

Next: Sexual access rights


[1] Although marriage rates are declining, lifelong monogamy is equally entrenched in de facto relationships.

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