A Walk on the Moon
This little miracle of a no-name film showed up with hardly a word being spoken in its favor. A short interview with director Tony Goldwyn in the NYTimes, more because of his family name (he's the grandson) than the quality of his work (he's a first-time director). Spotty reviews by the major critics (Janet Maslin loved it, Roger Ebert didn't). When I saw it at my local megaplex there were two of us in the theatre. This whole spring-release distribution structure of films no one expects to do any boxoffice is both a curse -- better hurry before they're gone -- and a blessing -- it's your chance to see the sleepers of the year. Last spring we had 'He Got Game' and 'Bulworth'; now we have 'A Walk on the Moon.'
So before I tell you what it's about, you must first run right out and see it. If you don't, it'll be dead meat until DVD and video time, and this really needs to be seen on the big screen. Not because it's a big film, but because -- like the great movies of the French New Wave -- it needs you to immerse yourself in its web. In a way this debut is as powerful as those first films of Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer. It catches you and sweeps you into itself; you become a member of the family you're watching on the screen. Maybe a brother- or sister-in-law, maybe an aunt or uncle, maybe just a cousin, but for one hour and forty-seven minutes you are family.
And here's the family: Meet New Yorkers Pearl and Marty Kantrowitz (Diane Lane and Liev Schreiber), and their kids Alison (Anna Paquin) and Daniel. Oh, and Marty's mother Lilian (Tovah Feldshuh). Marty is a TV repairman, Pearl is a housewife. They're off to the bungalow colony in the Catskills for the summer. It's where they go every summer; the women and kids stay for two months, the fathers come up on weekends, competing with each other to see who can drive it in the shortest time. In case you hadn't noticed, this family is Jewish. Not observant, but Jewish nonetheless.
It is the summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock, and the summer in which a man first walked on the moon. It is the summer in which Pearl's unscratched itches begin to overwhelm her, and the summer her fourteen-year-old daughter gets both her first period and her first boyfriend, all in one day. And it is the summer in which the gorgeous Gentile babe Viggo Mortensen, the Blouse Man whose converted bus holds more than blouses for those housewives interested in testing the waters, offers Pearl the chance to live out the dreams and fantasies she'd always denied herself, and do it to the music of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Taj Mahal, and Janis Joplin, which doesn't hurt either.
And so Pearl makes the leap. And the movie, which could have been -- take your pick -- smarmy, shallow, comic, cheap -- instead takes us inside every member of that family, to live in their skins with them as they try to come to terms with what is happening. Ladd, as Pearl, opens herself to us, holds nothing back. As an actress she insists that we share everything with her, and we do. Schreiber, in a role that could have been a simple stereotype -- the dull husband cuckolded -- makes Marty a moving and attractive and worthwhile person. Paquin is utterly, deliciously perfect as the child on the cusp of sexuality. (And the bungalow colony's loudspeaker -- Julie Kavner of the Simpsons does the voiceover -- doesn't forget to announce that first period so everyone can share her moment and her mortification.) Feldshuh, Marty's mother, has a gift of insight that understands, doesn't judge, but also doesn't hide anything, and so moves the whole film along to its resolution.
This extraordinary ensemble piece was written by another first-timer, Pamela Gray, and she and Goldwyn have let it breathe, have let each moment and character have their proper time, haven't hurried things. And yet there isn't a slow or boring moment in the film. Not only that -- there's nice wit and many very funny moments throughout, and all of them grow properly out of the family and their neighbors in the colony.
It is uncanny how well Gray and Goldwyn have understood every person in the film, so that by the end we in the audience and the Kantrowitzes on the screen are one and the same. I don't think we can ask for more than that.