''Man in the Moon,'' directed by Robert Mulligan (''To Kill a Mockingbird''), is a bittersweet comedy-tragedy that returns to a genre that was popular when movies didn't have to make or break it with sci-fi themes and stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Today, the film seems old-fashioned but old-fashioned in a very nice way. While it is true that the movie is small, it is also pleasantly evocative of an era that has passed, a time when parents worried about their daughters and maybe a little less about their sons.
The time is the '50s, and the place is Louisiana. Sam Waterston is Matthew Trent, and Tess Harper is his wife, Abigail. They have three daughters, and another child is expected.
The oldest girl, Maureen (Emily Warfield), is preparing to go off to college.
Maureen's coltish, 13-year-old sister, Dani, played by Reese Witherspoon, falls in love with the kid down the way, a 17-year-old farm boy played by Jason London.
Jason is a responsible young man. He knows he is too old to become involved with Dani. Maureen, however, is old enough, and when she and Court fall in love, Dani is heartbroken, so much so that she promises never to love her sister again.
Tragedy helps the girl resolve their dilemma, but fortunately, the film doesn't resort to cliche. At this point, it could easily have done so.
The younger members of the cast are completely believable, beginning with Witherspoon, who, at start, threatens to wear our her welcome when she chews, incessantly, like a farm animal.
Harper and Waterston are similarly convincing. Waterston's patriarch is a man of weakness and strength. He is, in a word, human.
''Man in the Moon'' is showing at local theaters. If you want a few laughs and a good cry, too, if you are willing to accept a film that is low on star power but big on quality, you may want to try this one.
''Man in the Moon''
** A 13-year-old farm girl and her older sister fall in love with the same boy.
CAST: Sam Waterston, Tess Harper, Gail Strickland, Reese Witherspoon, Jason London, Emily Warfield, Bentley Mitchum.
DIRECTOR: Robert Mulligan
RATING: PG-13 (sex, nudity)
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes