. A Walk on the Moon was very popular with the audience at the Sundance Festival in January and that is fully understandable. Tony Goldwyn’s first film is a warmhearted treat, full of small pleasures and nicely observed detail as it follows a family on the cusp of social changes in 1969. Placed in New York’s Catskill mountains, the script cleverly juxtaposes traditional, working class Jewish family life in a summer bungalow colony with the erupting outside influences of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, which reached a climactic moment at the nearby Woodstock festival that summer. The first men walking on the moon that very same summer provide a nice additional bit of imagery, a useful plot device, and a symbol of the changing times.
Pearl Kantrowitz (convincingly played by Diane Lane), married young to her high school sweetheart, has a 14 year old daughter (sweet Anna Paquin, a fine performer) and a younger son. Pearl says early on, "I haven’t made a decision in ten years, except whether to shop at A&P or Waldbaums’s." She wants more for her daughter – and, indeed, for herself – than what she finds in her own constrained life, her opportunities foregone due to marrying early, and her family’s less than glamorous economic circumstances. The motivation is set, opportunity arises, and our story slips smoothly into second gear.
The bungalow colony setting is a natural for gentle and loving satire. Screenwriter Pamela Gray knows this world from her own experience and it shows. Unacknowledged in the credits is Julie Kavner, whose unmistakable voice announces over the public address system: "Attention! A slide show of pictures from the Feldstein Bar Mitzvah will be shown in the Casino at two o’clock!" or "Attention! The knish man is on the premises!" A Streisand lookalike parades in her bikini. A borscht circuit entertainer sings badly and tells awful jokes in the Casino on Saturday night.
Underneath the surface observations, these are people living in traditional ways, family and ritually oriented, while social revolution has erupted around them. That their world cannot remain untouched by outside changes is inevitable, whether it is a restless housewife seeking new horizons or the younger generation anxious to break away. In this context, we follow the story of the members of this family, told from their viewpoint, believably catching their feelings as they work their way through change, crisis, and growth.
Pearl’s mother-in-law (Tovah Feldshuh), carries the wisdom of a still older generation.
She also reads cards and tea leaves and introduces the term bashert, Yiddish for fate. Fortunately, this theme is not belabored and Goldwyn does not try to turn a schmaltzy family tale into Oedipus Rex. Gray’s script pretty much manages to avoid cliche in territory where cliche might have run rampant. (Compare to, for example, Message in a Bottle and Playing by Heart, recent releases whose dialogue must have been lifted from a cliche compendium.)
A Walk on the Moon, combining good writing about genuinely felt experience, a fine cast, and restrained and tasteful direction, makes for winning film entertainment.